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The Q? Blog

How Mummies are Made

by Devin Reese -- Apr 27, 2015

Devin is the lead digital science writer for the Q?rius website. She writes and gathers media for the Smithsonian Science How? webcast series,...

Egyptian mummy and its X-ray at the National Museum of Natural History. Smithsonian image by Chip Clark.
Egyptian mummy and its X-ray at the National Museum of Natural History. Smithsonian image by Chip Clark.

The most familiar mummies are the Egyptians, buried in elaborate tombs and surrounded with treasures to escort them into the afterlife. But, not all mummies were Egyptian, or even of the ruling class. Mummies have been found around the world, in circumstances ranging from honored leaders to unfortunate victims. What makes a mummy is its resistance to natural decay. Mummies are bodies that have preserved for long periods of time, either because people prepared them to last or because natural conditions caused accidental preservation.

Image icon150507_q_webcast_button_hunt_b.pngEach mummy is a time capsule that speaks to us from the past. Anthropologists who study mummies gather data from the skeleton as well as the clothing, jewelry, coffin, or other accessories. These artifacts provide cultural context that might reveal how the person lived and died. These days, scientists try to peer inside mummies without destroying the linen strips or other materials wrapping the body or the body itself. X-rays are used to see the skeletal structure, while CT scans can show soft tissues in three dimensions.

Find out more about how scientists unravel the mysteries of mummies by watching a “Smithsonian Science How” webcast titled Mummy Science – Natural and Cultural Preserved Remains on the Q?rius website. Dr. David Hunt from the Physical Anthropology Division at the National Museum of Natural History will discuss and answer questions. Get teaching resources to support your webcast experience.

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