Skip to content

Exhibit: Egyptian Mummy Case

W. H. Over acquired the Museum’s mummy, mummy case, crocodile knife sheath, and Egyptian water jar in 1950 from a curio exhibit in Nebraska. The mummy was a Ptolemaic Period (2,000 years ago) adult female over twenty-five years of age and four feet, seven inches tall. (The mummy case is currently on display but not the mummy itself). She was probably a servant for a wealthy Egyptian who needed her services in the afterlife. The wooden mummy case is not a sarcophagus. A sarcophagus is an expensive stone coffin which holds the body of a pharaoh, nobleman, important official or wealthy person.

Hieroglyphics (picture writings) were painted on mummy cases and carved in tombs to give warnings, spells, and threats to protect the dead. The hieroglyphs painted on the base of the mummy’s display case mean, “they are safe, they are protected (and) guarded until eternity.”

A mummy is a human or animal whose body has been preserved by freezing, drying or chemical treatment. The word “mummy” comes from the word “monia,” a resin pitch wheel some Egyptian embalmers applied to cloth body wrappings to keep air away from the body they were preserving. Egyptian folklore states that King Osiris became the first mummy when he was embalmed by the Egyptian god Anubis (the god with the head of a jackal) and became King of the Underworld. Many ancient Egyptians were mummified because they wished to join Osiris in the afterlife. Scientists have also discovered much older natural mummies in tar pits and frozen regions of the Earth, including frozen mammoths in Siberia, the iceman of the Alps, dried Peruvian mummies from before 3,000 B.C. and a 7,800 year old mummy found in Chile.

Egyptian mummies were preserved by removing the internal organs and chemically drying the remaining skin and muscle tissue with oil of cedar (similar to turpentine) resins, and natron (or sodium carbonate), a salty mineral. Organs were preserved in the same manner and placed in canopic jars. Once the body was completely embalmed it was wrapped in layers of cloth, usually linen, and placed in a mummy case. When properly done, the process took seventy days. Masks carved or painted to look like the dead person were placed over the mummy’s head so its spirit could recognize its body when it returned to the tomb, its eternal residence. Food, clothing, toys, musical instruments, tools, weapons, combs, household implements and other personal possessions were placed in the tomb for the person to use in their afterlife.

These objects, pictures of objects, and hieroglyphics that adorn the tombs represent the greatest treasure of all; a glimpse into the daily life of an ancient people and their culture. Archaeologists, especially Egyptologists, have been able to reconstruct much of ancient Egyptian history, culture and life from the objects and writings left in the tombs and found in the remains of their cities and villages.

Mummies from other cultures and natural mummies of various animals have been used in the same way by archaeologists and other scientists to reconstruct many aspects and eras of the Earth’s past.

This information sheet was written by Dr. Robert L. Freese for the Friends of the Museum.