The Saint Louis Science Center’s current exhibition Lost Egypt: Ancient Secrets, Modern Science has sparked an interest in the afterlife in ancient Egyptian culture. Earlier this month, Michele Loyet, Adjunct Professor on Near Eastern and Egyptian Archaeology at Webster University, spoke at the Science Center on the topic of mummification in Egypt. She was Don Marsh’s guest on St. Louis on the Air to talk about the afterlife tradition in ancient Egypt.
Loyet began the discussion by describing the spectacular monuments that the Egyptians built to bury their dead. Since they believed that they would live in the tombs forever, they spent more time and money on them than they did their on houses. The most elaborate were in the form of pyramids.
Anyone who has seen the King Tut exhibit that has toured this country was undoubtedly struck by the decadence of the artifacts and the proliferation of gold and jewels found in his tomb. But Loyet points out that King Tut was a minor king from a disgraced dynasty. “If you see the amount of wealth that went into the tomb for him, if you can imagine then for a King such as Ramses, Seti or Amenhotep III who expanded the borders of Egypt all the way to the Euphrates River, their tombs must have been doubly spectacular.”
Marsh then asked Loyet why the Egyptians used mummification when burying their dead. She explained that the Egyptians believed that the soul had a number of parts. It was thought that the ba which was often depicted as a bird with a human head, could leave the body, travel outside it and then return. The Egyptians believe that’s exactly what happened when one was dreaming. The ka was thought to be the part of part of the spirit that actually lives in the tomb and partakes of the offerings there. The akh was the only part of the spirit that went into the heavens with the gods, but the other parts of the spirit needed the body to return to.
Mummification ensured that the spirit could still live in the body, but just in case, the Egyptians had a sort of tomb insurance. One form was placing ka statues in the tomb with the thought that the ka could survive in the statues if the mummy was destroyed. If the statue was destroyed, it was thought that the ka could live in the inscription of the deceased’s name, so if a pharaoh was disgraced, a later pharaoh might chisel the name from the tomb of the disgraced one.
Dehydration was the primary method used in the mummification process. The internal organs of the body would first be removed and preserved in jars, then the body would be treated with natrom salts that would draw all the moisture from the body. Then it was wrapped in linen and measures would be taken to preserve its appearance such as stuffing the cheeks. Finally, the mummy was placed in a sarcophagus. The gold and jewels that were buried with the mummy were representative of the status of the person’s life. A less wealthy person might have imitations rather than the genuine jewels and other items.
Loyet reported that the biggest myth surrounding the burial practices of the ancient Egyptians is that some outside culture Egypt and was responsible for building the pyramids and the culture. She maintains that is not the case.
Marsh concluded the discussion by asking Loyet what we have yet to learn about the Egyptian culture and burial practices. She responded, “Everything. You could spend the next 100 years just excavating the Egyptian Museum. If you’ve ever been to the Egyptian Museum in Cairo, it’s such an incredibly different experience from going to a museum here in the United States. The Egyptian Museum is just packed to the gills with artifacts and doesn’t even include the things that are in storage. Things that were excavated as far back as the 19th century are still in storage. Even if no excavation took place in the next 10 years in Egypt, you could still learn an incredible amount by just looking at those things that have never been looked at.”
Saint Louis Science Center Presents: Lost Egypt: Ancient Secrets, Modern Science
Open now through September 2
Monday - Saturday, 9:30 a.m. - 5:30 p.m.
Sunday, 11:00 a.m. - 5:30 p.m.
Saint Louis Science Center, 5050 Oakland Ave.
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