Unwrapping a Mummy

[ Archaeology ]

Unwrapping a Mummy

The Life, Death, and Embalming of Horemkenesi

By John H. Taylor

A fascinating picture of the life, death, and mummification of an ancient Egyptian.

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Horemkenesi was an Egyptian priest and official who lived at Thebes in the eleventh century B.C. The unwrapping and scientific examination of his mummified body (the last such investigation to have been carried out in Britain) provided a rare opportunity to study the remains of a known historical figure using the most sophisticated technology and methods of analysis. By combining the results of this study with information from inscriptions on Horemkenesi's coffin and rock graffiti recording his work in the cemeteries of Thebes, it is possible to build up a fascinating picture of the life, death, and mummification of an ancient Egyptian.

The first part of this book considers Horemkenesi's life and work against the backdrop of Upper Egypt in the troubled times of the early Twentieth Dynasty. The second part concentrates on the unwrapping of the mummy: its careful planning, how the delicate operation was carried out, and what discoveries were made. What did Horemkenesi look like? How old was he at death? What was the state of his health? Why did the embalmers not remove his brain, and why were his internal organs missing? These and other questions are answered in this stimulating book.

  • Acknowledgements
  • Introduction
  • The Discovery of Horemkenesi
  • Egypt in the Twenty-First Dynasty
  • The Life and Work of a Theban Official
  • Religious Beliefs and Funerary Practices
  • The Unwrapping and Study of Horemkenesi
  • The Embalming of Horemkenesi
  • The Findings: Reconstructing Horemkenesi the Man
  • Chronology
  • Bibliography
  • Illustration
  • Acknowledgements
  • Index

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On 1 April 1981, a group of scientists gathered around a table in the dissecting room at the University of Bristol's Department of Anatomy. Before them lay the mummified body of a man who had lived in ancient Egypt three thousand years before. The team had assembled to unwrap the mummy and to rescue as much information as possible in the face of the advancing decomposition which threatened to destroy it. Such operations are now undertaken only rarely, for complete mummies with their wrappings intact are far from being an inexhaustible resource. The Bristol unwrapping was embarked upon only after serious consideration, in the light of the body's deteriorating condition, which would otherwise have necessitated its disposal.

The mummy had been found in a rock-cut tomb at Deir el-Bahri on the Theban west bank in 1904-5, enclosed in a painted wooden coffin bearing the name Horemkenesi. A man of this name, who bore the same titles as the owner of the coffin, was mentioned in ancient graffiti carved on the rocks of the Theban necropolis, and it was generally supposed that they were one and the same person. But many questions remained to be answered. Was the mummy really that of the individual in whose coffin it was found? When did Horemkenesi live? How old was he at death? What diseases did he suffer from? What procedures had been used to embalm him? The Bristol team were seeking answers to these, and related, questions, through a combination of historical research and through the unwrapping and dissection of the mummy.

A special table had been constructed, and the team members were armed with a formidable array of dental and medical tools, cameras and recording sheets. Over a two-week period, layer after layer of linen wrappings were carefully peeled away, and each day brought a new discovery: a bandage disclosed an inscription which threw light on the identity of the body; masses of insect remains showed that the mummy had been seriously infested; vital body organs, which the investigators expected to be preserved, proved to be missing. All these pieces of evidence would contribute towards a reconstruction of the individual—his life, his death, his embalming and burial. When the last wrappings had been removed, the researchers saw before them the body of a strongly-built, clean-shaven, middle-aged man; yet they were still at the beginning of their investigations. While study of the coffin-inscriptions and graffiti led to a firm placing of Horemkenesi in a historical and social context, specialist examination of parts of the body built up a picture of his physical attributes and the state of his health. All the body parts were retained for future study. Since the 1981 unwrapping, new methods for the detection of diseases in ancient tissue have added significantly to our reconstruction of Horemkenesi's life, and there can be no doubt that more information will be forthcoming as techniques are developed and perfected. The following chapters summarise what has been learned so far.

The first section of this book examines Horemkenesi's world and uses the surviving records to reconstruct the background against which he lived his life. In the second part the investigation of his body is described, together with the findings, and an attempt is made to create a picture of Horemkenesi as an individual. Inevitably, much must remain conjectural but it is to be hoped that the reconstruction presented here is one which Horemkenesi himself would at least have recognised.


John H. Taylor is Assistant Keeper in the Department of Egyptian Antiquities at the British Museum.