The Embalmers’ Archive: Jobs of Embalmers

FROM THE LECTURE SERIES: HISTORY OF ANCIENT EGYPT

By Bob Brier, Ph.D.Long Island University

The ancient Egyptians mummified people for 3,000 years, but there is not a single papyrus that tells us how to mummify a person. Why? Well, it was probably a trade secret. But archives such as ‘The Embalmers’ Archive’ tell us about the embalming business.

Papyrus showing people fishing and farming.
Most papyri and tomb drawings show people engaged in ordinary activities, rather than showing details of mummification in ancient Egypt. (Image: Andrea Izzotti/Shutterstock)

Working with Mummies

How do you figure out how to make a mummy? One source—it’s not a great source—are the tomb walls. As you know, the Egyptians painted almost every aspect of daily life on their tomb walls. So maybe there is a picture of somebody being mummified? Not quite. You’ll get pictures of people working in the fields. You will see people at banquets, drinking. You will see them fishing or hunting. Nobody’s being mummified.

The closest thing that we have are two tombs, in Thebes, that show a mummy in the last stages of preparation. The painting shows a mummy with two embalmers working on it. They’re just doing the last stages of bandaging with little thin strips of bandage and they’re wrapping it around. But what’s really interesting is that the mummy isn’t lying on a table. It is lying on two blocks. And the reason is quite simple.

The bodies are put on blocks because when you have to pass the bandage under the body, you don’t want to have to lift the body off the table all the time. With the body up on blocks you could just simply pass the bandages beneath the mummy. This is the only information we get about the mummification process from these tombs.

This is a transcript from the video series History of Ancient Egypt. Watch it now, on The Great Courses Plus.

The Family Papers

Apart from the tombs, we have some papyri that are relevant. They don’t tell us about mummification, but they’re relevant. One is called The Embalmers’ Archive. These papyri were found in the area that we call the Fayoum, southwest of Cairo. They’re records of families of embalmers. But they’re not going to tell us how they did it. But they tell us something about the life of an embalmer.

Illustration of Anubis with an embalmed mummy.
Anubis was the jackal-headed god of embalming for the ancient Egyptians. (Image: sulca/ Shutterstock)

First of all, they were called ‘Men of Anubis’. Now, why Anubis? Anubis was the jackal-headed god. The jackal was associated with the dead, because jackals’ digestive systems are such that they prefer rotting meat. So they used to prowl cemeteries, looking for old bodies to eat, because it’s sort of predigested protein.

So the jackal became the god of embalming, Anubis. And at mummifications there would be a priest who wore a mask of a jackal—a big, black jackal’s mask. And he was sort of representing Anubis.

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The Sealer and Tomb Maintenance

Eventually, the embalmers became responsible for tomb maintenance. But what is tomb maintenance? Why was it important? One complex question was that of the ownership of tombs. For example, imagine this: Your grandfather is buried in a tomb. And your father oversees the tomb, he visits it. And maybe you visit it. But what about 500 years down the road? Is anybody going to visit that tomb?

Maybe your family dies out. And then the question becomes, whose tomb is it? Perhaps at some point it’s robbed. The tomb is then vacant. Now whose tomb is it? It belonged to your family, but nobody’s around to claim it. There were many, many such cases in the law courts in ancient Egypt about tomb ownership. Somebody said, ‘My family owned that tomb.’ Others said, ‘No, it’s a vacant tomb. We took it.” This was a difficult and time-consuming argument.

Doorway to an ancient Egyptian tomb.
There are a few recorded arguments in history about the ownership of tombs in ancient Egypt. (Image: Jason Benz Bennee/Shutterstock)

So the job of the ‘Sealers’, the people who were in charge of sealing a tomb and maintaining it, was also to keep track of the ownership of a tomb. They were the equivalent of the modern cemetery caretakers.

Hopefully, these families would be around and watch over the tomb. So as a ‘Sealer’ you were paid a fee for this. And you might be paid a fee to make sure that the inscriptions aren’t falling off the wall. So embalmers did a variety of things.

Learn more about what mummies tell us.

The Embalmers’ Oath of Allegiance

Now from this archive, we also have an oath of allegiance that the embalmers took. This archive is comprised of records for two families of embalmers. The oath of allegiance is, basically, from one family to the other, saying, “We’re not going to encroach on your territory.” In other words, they carved out part of the town.

So “The Embalmers’ Archive,” as we call it, has a wealth of information about the embalmers and their jobs. But this archive doesn’t tell us much about the process of embalming itself. And that’s what we really want to know. How did they do it?

Common Questions about the Embalmers’ Archive: Jobs of Embalmers

Q: What do we know about mummification in ancient Egypt from the tombs in Thebes?

The two tombs in Thebes tell us a little about mummification in ancient Egypt. The paintings in these tombs show the embalmers busy in the last stages of bandaging. The interesting detail is that the mummy isn’t lying on a table. It is lying on two blocks.

Q: What is ‘The Embalmers’ Archive’?

‘The Embalmers’ Archive‘ tells us about the families of embalmers in ancient Egypt.

Q: Why were embalmers also known as ‘Men of Anubis’ in ancient Egypt?

Anubis was the name of a jackal-headed god in ancient Egypt. Jackals were associated with death, so the embalmers were called ‘Men of Anubis’.

Q: What was the job of a ‘sealer’ in ancient Egypt?

In ancient Egypt, a sealer was the in charge of sealing a tomb and maintaining it. He had to keep track of which tomb belonged to which family. He was the equivalent of the modern cemetery caretakers.

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