Archaeology > Ask a Scientist about Mummies
David Hurst Thomas answers kids’ questions about mummies in this video interview. He’s an archaeologist at the American Museum of Natural History.
Are mummies real?
Do mummies still have flesh on them?
Why did they preserve dead people?
Have you ever dug up a mummy?
Where did the word mummy come from?
Why did they wrap up mummies?
Do mummies dry out?
Were Egyptians the only people that used mummification?
Why did they take the brain out of the nose?
Was anyone ever mummified alive?
Why did they stop making mummies?
Were there animal mummies?
Would you want to be mummified?
KID’S VOICE: Are mummies real?
DAVID HURST THOMAS: Mummies are real. Mummies have been around for thousands of years. There are even modern mummies that are being made today. Mummies are real for sure, it’s just the movies that aren’t real.
KID’S VOICE: Do mummies still have flesh on them?
DAVID HURST THOMAS: When you look at a mummy in a museum case and actually see the body itself, face to face with a real mummy that’s thousands of years old, it does have flesh still on it, but the flesh has changed. It’s been dried out in a very special way, and treated by experts who know how to do this, so it doesn’t feel like flesh. It feels like beef jerky. It’s still flesh. It’s still there. You don’t want to eat it.
KID’S VOICE: Why did they preserve dead people?
DAVE HURST THOMAS: The most famous mummies come from ancient Egypt. And in that case, there is a belief that if the body is preserved, well-preserved, and sent off in a certain way, there’s an afterlife. And you have to have your body in good shape to be part of that afterlife, so that’s what your loved ones do is spend a lot of time and effort keeping you perfect.
Now it’s a very different explanation in Peru. Why do they make mummies in Peru? It’s not because of the afterlife. It’s because a family member died. You want that person around in your life still. And the Peruvian mummies very often are mummified in a way where they can still be part of the family. They come out on holidays. They come out in parades. They remain part of that family because they’re mummies.
KID’S VOICE: Have you ever dug up a mummy?
DAVE HURST THOAS: I’m an archaeologist. I’m a scientist. And I’m lucky enough to work here at the American Museum of Natural History, where I’m in the field six months a year. We’re digging things up. And once in a while, in a really unusual circumstance, yes, we do run in to mummies.
In this case, in the Americas, most of these are natural mummies that have dried up in a very arid place out in the desert. But there are mummies, and we have excavated them. And we can learn a great deal from the mummies that we find. And we can do it respectfully, because we now have technology to where we don’t invade that mummy in order to learn about it.
KID’S VOICE: Where did the word mummy come from?
DAVID HURST THOMAS: The word mummy is a funny one. If you lived in Europe, you might call your mother that. But the word mummy that we use in science comes from an old Turkish term that actually refers to a rock. It’s the process of making somebody like a rock, and it was picked up 800 years ago in Old English. So a mummy is somebody who’s mummified, and mummified looks a lot like being turned into stone.
KID’S VOICE: Why did they wrap up mummies?
DAVID HURST THOMAS: Usually when we see a mummy, it’s a dead person who’s wrapped up. Now, why is that? Well, the reason anybody would want to mummify a relative or a leader is because you want to somehow preserve that body. Several steps involved, but the last step is always to wrap it up tightly so that that deceased person persists for a long time.
KID’S VOICE: Do mummies dry out?
DAVID HURST THOMAS: The reason we get mummies is because you stop the natural decay. It can be really dry. It can be really wet. In Florida, we have entirely preserved human brains that are 8,000 years old because they’ve been under water all the time. The important thing as a scientist when we deal with mummies is to preserve the conditions of that mummy in the lab that duplicate the conditions that created it as mummies.
KID’S VOICE: Were Egyptians the only people that use mummification?
DAVID HURST THOMAS: We all think of mummies as coming from Egypt, and that’s true. Ancient Egypt, thousands of mummies. But the surprising thing is, mummies were made in every continent of the world except Antartica. There are lots of cultures who thought it was somehow important to keep their dead relatives around.
KID’S VOICE: Why did they take the brain out of the nose?
DAVID HURST THOMAS: In ancient Egyptian life, the brain was the least important of the organs that any of us have. They didn’t want to save it. They wanted the heart.
So how do you get rid of a brain? Well, how do you get rid of a brain? There are only two or three ways you can get into a brain if you want to keep some somebody’s body intact. And so the Egyptians had special hooks that they could put up through two or three holes in the skull, and pull that brain out in chunks, and just toss it away. Who cares about brains? We’re people who care about the heart.
KID’S VOICE: Was anyone ever mummified alive?
DAVID HURST THOMAS: There are religious people in Japan who’ve been doing this for 1,000 years. The idea is if you preserve your body in a special way, it will show a particular kind of purity. How do you do it? Well, it takes about 3,000 days. But that first 1,000 days, what you do is you basically just drink tea that’s made of a bark of a special tree. You lose all the fat, and you start the process of introducing things into your body that will help preserve. The second 1,000 days, you eat almost nothing. You pray.
And then what happens for the last part, you go into a room, and they close the door. They give you a bell. You ring the bell every day. And when you stop ringing the bell, they assume you’ll die. People will come back at some point, years later, and see if you’ve actually become a mummy. If you have become a mummy, that’s a sign from heaven of ritual purity, and you’re accepted. If you didn’t make it, then you’re just another ordinary person who isn’t a mummy.
KIDS’ VOICE: Why did people stop making mummies?
DAVID HURST THOMAS: The ancient Egyptians made mummies until they were taken over by another culture, the Romans, who didn’t do that anymore. In Peru, there’s a longer history of making mummies for several different reasons, but they stopped doing that when they were conquered by a power that came in and told them, don’t do that anymore. But there’s still cultures in the world who continued to do mummies. They just weren’t conquered. And they could keep doing what they’d been doing for a long time.
KID’S VOICE: Were there animal mummies?
DAVID HURST THOMAS: In ancient Egypt, of course, the mummies are famous. The kings and queens and important people, if they’re gold and all. But if you look closer, there are also other mummies that are there. Sometimes they’re alligators. Sometimes they’re pets. And for some reason, there are kitty cats, lots of them.
In ancient Egypt, it was actually an industry to create cat mummies that would be buried with people. There’s an archaeological site where a million cat mummies were created for sale. And if you look closely at some of the mummies that turn up in the Egyptian tombs, they’re fakes. There’s somebody who was trying to pass off a cat mummy, and all there are are sticks and stones inside. We know that because we have the technology to look inside the kitty cat.
KID’S VOICE: Would you want to be mummified?
DAVID HURST THOMAS: I spend a lot of my time with mummies, and maybe a little too much. And some of my students kind of look at me, hey, do you kind of envy being a mummy? Somebody who died 3,000 years ago and still is around and not looking that bad? I think if I were an ancient Egyptian, I would have loved to have been mummified. I think if I were an ancient Peruvian, I might have second thoughts, because many of those mummies are children who were sacrificed on tops of mountains. In my culture, I don’t have any real desire to become a mummy. But if I did, I could go to the state of Utah. There is actually an industry that they would turn me into a mummy, if that’s what I want.