BMCR 2007.07.58

Mummies and Death in Egypt. Foreword by Jean Yoyotte. Translated from the French by David Lorton

, , Mummies and Death in Egypt. Foreword by Jean Yoyotte. Translated from the French by David Lorton. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2006. xvi, 234. $39.95.

Table of Contents

Françoise Dunand and Roger Lichtenberg have a long record of publications related to the topic of this book. They are best known for their research on Graeco-Roman Egypt, especially archaeological excavation in the region of the el-Kharga oasis. Consistent with the encyclopedic breadth and judicious interpretive skill found in their previous work, Mummies and Death in Egypt offers excellent surveys of both the history of mummification in Egypt and how mummies are studied using current scientific methods.

The brief foreword by Jean Yoyotte is a succinct introduction to mummification in Egypt (pp. ix-xi). The shorter introduction by Dunand and Lichtenberg reminds the reader that mummification was practiced in many other cultures, despite the uniqueness of the evidence from Egypt (pp. 1-2).

The first major section of the book (chapters 1-9) is a chronological survey of the history of mummification in Egypt from prehistory to the Byzantine period. Chapter 1 surveys burial practices from the prehistoric period to the end of the second royal dynasty in Egypt, during which Egyptians could observe the spontaneous mummification produced by the desiccating desert sand (pp. 5-13). The treatment of burials in this period is placed in its social context by a discussion of tombs and funerary practice, which included an increasingly lavish investment in royal burials during the first two dynasties.

Royal support promoted the development of the effective mummification techniques that began to appear in the Old Kingdom period, which is discussed in Chapter 2 (pp. 13-24). These included the introduction of abdominal evisceration and the use of natron. These and other techniques were developed more fully in the Middle Kingdom period, which is surveyed in Chapter 3 (pp. 25-36). Both chapters 2 and 3, like the chapters on subsequent periods, provide elaborate discussions of the funerary rituals and beliefs that evolved in the period treated in each chapter.

Chapter 4 is devoted to the New Kingdom (pp. 37-58). The large collection of famous royal mummies preserved from this period furnish the bulk of evidence for the detailed treatment of mummification in this chapter. Osirian mythology and other issues that provide the context for understanding these mummies are described. Chapter 5 treats the era from the Third Intermediate Period to the end of the Persian period (pp. 59-71). Among the developments discussed in this chapter are the introduction of mummy containers made of molded cartonnage and the shift in the location of royal tombs away from the Valley of the Kings to more secure temple enclosures. Chapter 6 surveys mummification and burial practices in the Graeco-Roman period (pp. 72-93). Dunand and Lichtenberg emphasize that the signature phenomenon in this period was the extension of mummification to the whole of society.

Chapter 7 departs somewhat from the broader chronological arrangement to present a more synthetic exploration of various details of mummification practice and accompanying rituals that have been introduced only briefly in earlier chapters. Among the topics treated in this chapter are the common statuettes known as ushabtis (pp. 94-107). Chapter 8 focuses on animal mummification, noting that the growth in this practice in the later periods of Egyptian history corresponds to the wider use of human mummification that can be observed in the same periods (pp. 108-22). Chapter 9 brings the historical survey to an end with a study of Christian mummification, especially as practiced by monks (pp. 123-30). Christians increasingly employed shrouds rather than bandages in their mummies and made other modifications reflective of their uniquely Christian mythology.

The second part of the book (chapters 10-14) is a survey of the application of modern medical technology to the study of mummies. Chapter 10 provides an illuminating history of methods applied to studying mummies, with an especially detailed treatment of the application of X-rays, CAT scanning, and other recent scientific techniques (pp. 133-42). Chapter 11 explores in greater detail how these and other new techniques are currently employed in the analysis of palaeopathology, blood types, evidence from hair, and other data that can be extracted from mummies (pp. 143-47). Chapter 12 provides a detailed summary of the results of numerous studies that have applied the new scientific technologies to mummies found in museums (pp. 148-62). The proximity of museum collections to laboratories has made it relatively easy to apply advanced technologies to the mummies found in museums, but the provenance of these mummies is often unknown. This problem has generated an increasing interest in using scientific technologies to study mummies in the actual location in which they are found during archaeological fieldwork. Examples of this new research practice are surveyed in Chapter 13 (pp. 163-72). Chapter 14 summarizes some of the results of the application of these methods and explains what can be learned from such methods, such as information about a population’s ethnic characteristics, demography, palaeopathology, rituals, and environment (pp. 173-86).

The brief conclusion (p. 188) is followed by an appendix providing a descriptive catalogue of just over 60 royal mummies and mummies that are associated with them in findings from dynasties 17-22 (pp. 189-200). These include the mummies of well-known figures such as Tuthmosis III and Ramses II. Endnotes, a glossary of Egyptological and medical terms, a bibliography, and an index appear in the following pages. All of the illustrations are in black and white, in contrast to the original French edition, which included a limited number of color photographs and over a hundred illustrations not found in the English edition. Despite these omissions, the English edition is still richly illustrated with maps and 255 figures consisting of tables, line drawings, site plans, and photographs.

The chief value of the book is that it offers a reliable survey of the state of the question on mummification in Egypt. The copyright page gives the misleading impression that the English text is simply a translation of the French edition of 1998 ( Les momies et la mort en Égypte, Paris: Editions Errance). However, the English edition includes extensive revisions and additions that build on much more recent excavations and publications up through 2005. The book is targeted at the introductory level, so specialists will be familiar with both its general content and the possibility of more nuanced treatments at a few points in the chapters most relevant to their own area of expertise. Nevertheless, the book has such a broad chronological scope and includes such a fresh summary of current research that even the most advanced reader will learn much from it. The chronological organization of the chapters is especially valuable in clarifying the gradual developments in mummification, the evolution of funerary ritual, and the history of relevant modern research.

The book also provides an excellent introduction to Egyptian funerary practice and belief in general. Despite its stated focus on mummification, the consistent effort to place mummification in its larger social context provides opportunities for treatment of many of the topics that one would expect in any discussion of Egyptian funerary ritual. These include the difficulties created by the plundering of tombs, the evolution of textual sources such as the Book of the Dead, the mythology associated with funerary rituals, and the relationship between various deities and mummified animals. One also encounters the standard themes that are normally elaborated in discussions of Egyptian funerary ritual, such as the social differentiation that distinguishes the burials of royal figures from those of less wealthy individuals.

One of the methodological strengths of this book’s placement of mummification in its broader social and economic context is that this approach often generates convincing new explanations for data about mummification and funerary practice. For example, the evidence for social differentiation by economic class in Egyptian funerary practice is especially crucial to one of the points that Dunand and Lichtenberg do not tire of repeating. This is their rejection of previous claims that the quality of mummification declined in the Graeco-Roman period (pp. 72, 97-98, 122, 171, 178-82).1 Dunand and Lichtenberg affirm that Herodotus was basically correct in describing three different levels of quality in mummification technique, each of which implied a corresponding difference in expense. The expansion of mummification in the Graeco-Roman period was accomplished by a broader use of the least expensive techniques, but this did not entail an actual loss in the ability to produce mummies of outstanding quality for the few who could afford them. The clientele served by embalmers in this period was simply larger and more diverse in its economic resources than in earlier periods when mummification was limited to royal families and related wealthy elites. The more comprehensive sociological methodology implied in these arguments provides a refreshing departure from the approaches of older Egyptologists, who romanticized the earliest periods of Egyptian history or resorted to abstract religious explanations for phenomena that may have been produced for much more practical reasons.

Among some of the book’s more specific contributions, specialists in Graeco-Roman Egypt will be quick to grasp the importance of Dunand and Lichtenberg’s observation that the study of mummies complements the use of other resources for studying ancient demography (pp. 173-75). Papyrology and epigraphy have provided important sources for statistical data on average age at death, ratio of males to females in various age groups, and other data that illuminate the demography of ancient Egypt. Recent applications of scientific methods to the study of large numbers of provenanced mummies found in excavations have provided a completely new source for the kind of statistical data that is most useful in addressing such issues. Thus it is especially valuable to discover that some of the data derived from the study of mummies is similar to the results of the study of census returns by Bagnall and Frier (p. 173).2

David Lorton has performed a great service in producing a clear and readable translation of such an excellent book. Many readers will probably stumble over a few of the medical terms in the later chapters that are not defined in the text or the glossary. However, this will not prevent the book from serving as an easily accessible textbook or supplementary reading for students at all levels, from high school to the graduate level. The book can be recommended to the widest possible audience of general readers, students, and advanced scholars.


1. The same point is emphasized in their other publications; e.g., Dunand and Lichtenberg, “Pratiques et croyances funéraires en Égypte romaine,” ANRW 2.18.5 (1995) 3216-3315.

2. Roger S. Bagnall and Bruce W. Frier, The Demography of Roman Egypt (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994).