Young Explorers' Club

This short film made for children looks at mummification in Ancient Egypt. It focuses on the mummified bodies of married couple Kha and Meryt, who lived in the workers’ village of Pa-demi (Deir el-Medina) almost three and a half thousand years ago c.1400 BC. When they died, both were mummified to keep their bodies as intact as possible in order to provide a permanent home for their souls which were believed to live on after death.

Jo with the mummified bodies of Kha (left) and Meryt (right) in the Egyptian Museum Turin © Lion Television

The Egyptians had first attempted to mummify their dead around 4300 BC and over the following centuries had developed and refined it so by Kha and Meryt’s time it usually took around 70 days. Carried out by specially-trained embalmers, they generally began by removing most of the internal organs which is where decay normally begins. Firstly they inserted a thin metal probe up through the nose and into the skull to remove the brain, a process made far easier by ‘whisking’ into a liquid which can drain out down the nose rather than hooking it out in pieces. Since the Egyptians thought the brain was unimportant and that the heart was the main organ of the body responsible for intelligence, emotion and memory, they left the heart in place. Yet the other major organs were removed using a sharp blade of black obsidian (volcanic glass) to make a small incision in the left side of the abdomen. This allowed the embalmers to pull out the intestines, stomach, liver and lungs which were then washed, mummified and placed in separate containers called Canopic jars usually buried with the body to keep all the body parts together.

X-ray images of Kha (left) and Meryt (right) revealing their jewellery and their brains in situ (source)

The hollowed-out body was then dried out beneath piles of a naturally-occurring salt called natron which removed any remaining moisture from the body over a period of forty days. With the dried-out body removed from the natron and coated in a blend of imported tree resins, vegetable oils and beeswax, it was wrapped in long strips of linen topped with a linen shroud and in some cases a golden mask placed over the head, as was done for Meryt, before placement inside one or more coffins for burial.

This is how the bodies of Kha and Meryt were discovered in 1906, in such a complete state they have never been unwrapped and instead studied using X-rays, CT scanning and chemical analysis. Very surprisingly, these techniques have revealed that none of their internal organs had been removed and can still be seen in place. This is because Kha and Meryt were mummified using a new technique the embalmers had developed to preserve important mummies during the 18th Dynasty (c.1550-1300 BC), a technique identified and recreated in 2011 (read more). The couple’s X-rays and CT scans also showed that beneath the wrappings, both still wear large amounts of jewellery and amulets designed to keep them safe in the next world and clearly in this one, where modern technology can be used to study them while keeping them completely intact.

Detail of a multi-coloured faience broad collar like the one still worn by Meryt (Petrie Museum UC.1957) © J. Fletcher