Written By: Richard Jerome
There’s something about mummies. Those preserved human remains are powerful on several contradictory levels, sometimes simultaneously: They’re seductive, with an aura of mystery and rich antiquarian appeal; at the same time, mummies can be repellent because, well, they’re preserved human remains; and certainly they have the capacity to terrify as eerie avatars of mortality that have inspired a whole subgenre of horror fiction and film. Mummies are time capsules bearing secrets of the distant past and often stand as works of art; think of Egyptian sarcophaguses, with their elaborately carved and painted ornamentation. On a more modest scale, the 7,000-year-old mummies of South America, crafted by an early maritime community known as the Chinchorros, resemble small statues, hardly as grand as the Egyptians’ handiwork but with a kind of rugged and deeply affecting beauty.
Indeed, mummies come in different forms from a variety of regions and historical eras. Of course, it’s important to distinguish between naturally mummified remains, like those found buried in the bogs of Denmark and Britain, where peat released acids that essentially pickled the body, and human-made mummies, meticulously prepared, typically—but not exclusively—by removing internal organs and then drying and treating the corpse. In addition to the Chinchorros, mummification was practiced by the Incas as well as the ancient Chinese and Canary Islanders, among others. But mummies are most inextricably associated with Egypt in the age of the pharaohs, where bodies were embalmed and preserved, bound in their signature linen bandages, specifically to prepare them for the next world. If they were prominent enough, they were buried with valuable possessions to take along on their journey. Either way, Egyptian mummies and artifacts are routinely among the most popular attractions at some of the world’s great museums. The 1922 discovery of the “boy king” Tutankhamun—whose tomb was filled with a spectacular array of treasures—famously ignited a global frenzy.
“I think people are obsessed and interested in mummies because they are such immediately recognizable people—so they don’t look like remains but rather like someone who might get up and start talking at any moment,” says Salima Ikram, Distinguished University Professor of Egyptology at the American University in Cairo and a noted historian of Egyptian funerary practices. “For example, look at the mummy of Ramses II or King Seti I. They really look like who they were, and this is what fascinates, because it telescopes time as one looks at people who lived 3,000 or 4,000 years ago—the fact that their faces are recognizable in many instances makes it all the more poignant and intimate. I think it gives an immediacy and intimacy with the past.”
Ikram also acknowledges that mummies have a darker, even frightening allure. “Of course, they’re not all beautiful or have faces that are explicitly preserved, and that brings in some of the thrill of the macabre,” she says. “The reason that people will go and watch a horror film is the same reason that some of those people will be enthralled by mummies. And death is also something that fascinates everyone because it comes to us all.”
The history of mummies is also about the study and treatment of mummies—and not always by respectful scholars like Ikram. In past centuries, mummy tombs commonly fell prey to plunder and desecration. From medieval times through the Renaissance, mummies were ground up and dispensed as medicine for their imagined healing properties; later, they were brought back to Europe and America as souvenirs for the wealthy or to be displayed in museums. In the 18th and 19th centuries, mummies served as popular entertainment at public “unwrappings” performed for paying audiences. There was often an undercurrent of racism and colonialism to it all—look how these strange, dark-skinned old exotics dealt with their dead.
On the other hand, mummies have also inspired a vast canon of serious archaeological and scientific study. The remains have offered a wealth of information about life in their ancient communities, more than ever now that researchers have the benefit of imaging technology. We know, for example, that the Egyptians were subject to some of the same illnesses that have plagued modern societies—heart disease, arthritis, smallpox, and polio, among others. In early 2023, a study published in the journal Frontiers in Medicine described CT scans conducted on the 2,300-year-old mummy of a teenage boy that had been discovered in 1916 and stored in the basement of the Egyptian Museum in Cairo ever since. Dubbed the Golden Boy mummy because of his gold mask and amulets, he was “digitally unwrapped” to reveal important cultural details without violating the integrity of the body. Scans showed that the boy’s 49 amulets came in 21 shapes and sizes, each with a special significance—and all meant to prepare him for the next world. Hence, a golden tongue amulet placed inside his mouth ensured that he could speak. A right-angle amulet was designed to keep him balanced and leveled.
To be sure, the idea that there is some kind of postmortem existence was central to human-generated mummification. In Egypt and elsewhere, preserving the integrity of the body was essential if the deceased were to transition smoothly to the afterlife. Mummies underscore the cruelest subtext of human experience, our awareness that death is inevitable and, despite all efforts to prevent it, unavoidable. One’s earthly life might be riddled with emotional and physical misery, comfortable and richly fulfilling, or somewhere in between. One might live to a great age or die achingly young. Either way, it’s all finite. Whether you have been blessed and would like more of a good thing, have been cursed and feel cheated, or simply want to enjoy more sunsets, it’s reasonable to ask, like Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller’s musical buzzkill, “Is that all there is?”
Long before recorded history, humans began trying to answer that question with a resounding “no” by cultivating a belief in some sort of afterlife. In ancient times, life expectancy was much shorter than today, sometimes brutally so. Chinchorros, for instance, were lucky to see 30 and suffered devastating rates of child mortality—which is why some of their most powerfully moving mummies are of doll-like infants and toddlers. Some Egyptians, including Pharaoh Ramses II, who died at around 90, lived well into old age. But for most ancients, except the lucky and privileged few, life was hard (and short) and then you died. There had to be something else—otherwise, what was the point? Of course, loss, bereavement, and the certainty of death are just as excruciatingly present today, no matter how long we or our loved ones may last. Mummies represent that universal aspect of being human. “Grief, pain, sorrow, joy, and love are all primordial emotions that connect us with the past,” says the Chilean anthropologist Bernardo Arriaza, who has spent decades studying Chinchorro culture. “We are all united by them.”
And so, when we gaze on mummies, whether we find them endlessly intriguing or unnervingly creepy, we should see a bit of ourselves.
Here are a selection of photos from LIFE’s new special issue Mummies: Enchantment, Horror and Mortality. Available here.