It meant the end of one of ancient Egypt's great industries: embalming.
A new faith was sweeping the land. Like that of the Egyptians, it preached resurrection after death. Unlike the Egyptians, however, Christians believed the material body was unnecessary for the afterlife.
"It was big business it is the best business in ancient Egypt," said Dr. Zahi Hawass, field director of the recent excavation in Bahariya Oasis. Embalmers were among most important people in Egypt because they provided something everybody wanted, Hawass explained, comparing the embalming business of the time to today's computer industry.
Mummification was widespread prior to the days of King Zer, a pharaoh of Egypt's First Dynasty (before 3100 B.C.), and one of the oldest mummies yet found. In predynastic times, the Egyptians buried their dead in the open desert, the land within the Nile floodplain being too valuable for tombs. The dehydrating properties of hot sand naturally mummified the corpses interred there.
|The necropolis, city of the dead, at Bahariya
But the growing complexity of Egypt's agricultural society brought class divisions, leading to more stylized forms of burial: Animal-skin shrouds, brick enclosures, coffins and so forth, all of which removed the body farther from the sand. Fluids thus remained within the corpses for a longer time, leading to a greater degeneration of the body a body that the Osiris religion believed was absolutely intrinsic to life after death.
It was around 3150 B.C. that the funerary cult of Osiris came to mainstream power. At the core of their mythos was the story of Osiris, god of the Nile, being dismembered by his evil brother, Seth, who then scattered the pieces of the corpse. But the goddess Isis, Osiris's wife, gathered the pieces together and made them whole by the recitation of spells. Osiris was born again.
Likewise, the pharaohs the living gods of Egypt believed they could achieve eternal life if, after death, all the king's men put them back together again. This idea eventually filtered down through the masses, and anyone pharaoh, priest, artisan, or laborer could get a piece of the afterlife action for a price.
The Key to the Kingdom: Preservation
Early embalmers realized the key to preserving the body for all time was dehydration. This led to a precise and studied way to extract moisture from the body while minimally damaging it, and hence to the rise of a class of specialists who could do so.
Embalming was a family business in ancient Egypt, an oral tradition passed down through the generations. Even so, Hawass stressed the meritocratic aspects of Egyptian culture, saying embalmers were made and not born.
"I believe it depends on the talent of the individuals," Hawass said. "They could be common laborers promoted to do this because they had talent."
"It's true the traditional picture of Egyptian society that's always been presented is of a fairly rigid one," said Roger Bagnall, professor of classics and history at Columbia University. "That view has pretty much broken down and people now recognize that actually society was more fluid than it was once thought."
"There's certainly nothing much legal to prevent people from advancing," he added. "The question was whether there were openings, whether they could acquire enough capital, and so on."
"I think probably the practical barriers to breaking in were considerable. But it was a negotiation kind of thing if you can persuade an embalmer to take you on, you can get the training."
Death and Commerce
A great deal of ritual was involved in preserving the dead. Mummifiers wore jackal masks to identify themselves with the embalming god Anubis, and the man who made the incision to remove the organs was afterwards ritually chased and abused by his coworkers, a play act to underscore the sanctity of the corpse. Yet Egyptian embalmers were a secular class, more artisan than priest.
Both Herodotus and Diodorus Siculus, two Greek historians divided in time by 400 years, wrote not just of the mummification process but also about the trade that it was. Herodotus, writing around 450 B.C., stated embalmers would present a mummy-to-be's next of kin with a choice of three services, using painted wooden figures to show clients what they could expect.
Diodorus, writing later during Egypt's Greco-Roman occupation, claimed embalmers' customers were given a price list from which they could pick items or services. Archaeologists have discovered such a list, priced in Greek drachmae, offering everything from myrrh, oil and linen, to professional mourners who would wail and moan beside the mummy as it was carried to its final resting place.
"We know that a lot of these Roman-period embalmers cut corners in their work so that they may not have been giving the complete value for money received," said Bagnall.
|The mask on a mummy of a woman with a Roman hairstyle and Egyptian clothing
Mummies have been found with their limbs broken or simply discarded so as to squeeze them into too-small coffins. Embalming shops attached wooden ID tags to mummies to prevent mix-ups. But even so, mistakes probably happened. An X-ray of one mummy revealed a second skull between the legs, suggesting the embalmer was trying to hide evidence of an "extra" skull in his shop.
"They put the effort into the outside because that was what people were going to see, and inside well, the loved one may have suffered," Bagnall said.
Like businesses anywhere, embalmers' income probably reflected that of their neighborhood, making it no coincidence so many mummies have been found in Bahariya Oasis. "They were people who [sold] wine to the Nile Valley," said Hawass, "And therefore they were rich they could afford really to have mummies like this." Hence, the embalmers "could be the richest individuals in the country."
"It wasn't cheap," Bagnall said of the cost.
But necropolises like the one at Bahariya were some of the last. When the Christian emperor Theodosius outlawed paganism in A.D. 392, Egyptian mummification and its practitioners faded from history, leaving 3,000 years of tradition behind them and, by one estimate, almost 70 million mummies.