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The teeth of a 17th dynasty (circa 1550 BC) mummy had his teeth broken out, probably during the embalming process. This mummy's wrappings were removed in the early 20th century.

First Physical Evidence found of Ancient Egyptian Opening of the Mouth Procedure

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Ancient Egyptians took great care to mummify the bodies of high-status people and adorned and entombed them with some of the most beautiful objects ever made.  However, in what appears contrary to the careful and delicate steps taken, a new scholarly study provides the first ever physical evidence that mortician-priests would force open the mouths of the deceased with a knife and iron chisel during the mummification process to perform an “opening of the mouth procedure”.

While it has long been known that the ancient Egyptians carried out an opening of the mouth ceremony – a symbolic animation of a statue or mummy by magically opening its mouth so that it could breathe and speak – it has also been suspected, based on historical references, that they carried out a physical procedure on the mouths of the deceased.

A depiction of the opening of the mouth ritual

A depiction of the opening of the mouth ritual ( Wikimedia Commons )

The new study in the journal The Anatomical Record is the first one to find physical evidence to support what has been written and described in historical texts:

“One learns from the texts of the Ritual of Embalming and the Apis Embalming Ritual that after the surgical treatment and the dehydration, the dead body was again cleaned and anointed before being wrapped,” the authors write. “The jaws had to be forced apart with instruments to wipe out and anoint the oral cavity with oil and resins. For these manipulations, the term 'opening of the mouth procedure' may be used, to distinguish it from the purely symbolic actions of the OMR [opening of the mouth ritual]. This opening of the mouth procedure caused in many cases—and with this we come back to the initial point—fractures and avulsions of front teeth seen frequently in ancient Egyptian mummies.”

The mummification process

The mummification process ( Graphic from The Anatomical Record )

The authors of the study, Roger Seiler and Frank Rühli, both with the Institute of Evolutionary Medicine in Zurich, examined 51 mummies from the Swiss Mummy Project and more than 100 from the Anthropological Institute and Museum. Some of the institute's mummies were collected around 1900 AD, and at that time the usual procedure was to unwrap the mummy and even remove soft tissues from the mouth to do craniological studies. Of the mummies found more recently, the researchers did modern medicine's radiological procedure called computed tomography scans so as not to disturb the wrappings or the head inside. Several of the mummies that Seiler and Rühli examined had mouth trauma.

“Mummies are among the most characteristic objects of the Ancient Egyptian culture and their monuments—shrines, coffins, and funeral masks—among the most beautiful objects created by the Egyptians. The 'making of a mummy' included a long, complex, and ritually protected operation to transform the dead body into an effigy of the eternal Osiris. It ended before the interment with the 'opening of the mouth ritual' (OMR),” Seiler and Rühli wrote in their published paper. “The goal was the animation of the mummy, its transformation to a medium for cultic communication, to make it able to communicate by opening their mouth and eyes. But the whole process of mummification meant also a massive intervention in the physical integrity of the dead person, and often the corpse was dealt with little care. Incidents of post-mortem accidents were high, particularly in the oro-facial region. … Careful examination of the mummies of the Swiss Mummy Project and other cases reported in the literature showed frequent dental pathologies including fractured and totally luxated [dislocated] teeth, which were up to now not sufficiently taken into consideration.”

Opening of the mouth ceremony depicted in Theban Tomb 335

Opening of the mouth ceremony depicted in Theban Tomb 335 ( Wikimedia Commons )

The authors include an ancient Egyptian text, the Papyrus Vienna from the 2nd century BC, that describes somewhat the embalment of the Apis bull, which resembled embalming of high-status people. In embalming the tongue and mouth of “the god,” a priest “put his hand in his mouth as far as his hand can reach” and laid two cloths on the opening of the throat and two more on his lower jaw then covered the inside of the mouth with a cloth.

A text from 125 to 75 BC on the obverse side of this papyrus states:

… two smr-priests […] open the mouth of the god before the Overseer of the Mystery. The Overseer of the Mystery […] anoints inside the mouth of the god, above and below, as well as the passage of the throat up to the place which his hand shall be able to reach.

The Apis bull was considered a god, as were some of the people mummified, so apparently the rituals and processes of mummification for both the bull and people were similar.

The rituals and procedures concerning the mouth and throat were performed after the brains and insides were removed and the body dehydrated but before the mummy was wrapped.

The entire June 2015 issue of The Anatomical Record, all 26 articles, is devoted to the study of mummies from around the world.  It is available free of charge in its entirety at http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1002/ar.v298.6/issuetoc.

Featured image: The teeth of a 17th dynasty (circa 1550 BC) mummy had his teeth broken out, probably during the embalming process. This mummy's wrappings were removed in the early 20th century. ( Photo from The Anatomical Record )

By Mark Miller

Comments

A few years ago I read an article about bad teeth in the mummies of some high pharaohs, including abcesses.  If I remember correctly, the article concluded that Egyptian bread, which included a high percentage of sand, caused the enamel to wear down and resulted in very painful and dangerous conditions for lots of Egyptians.

I have some questions about mummification.  From what I understand, this went on until maybe the 4th century AD.  Did they use the same procedures for a couple thousand years, or did things start at some point where they learned how to do it, they got better, and then they got worse again?

It seems like if they did it for so long, it had to have changed.  But then again, Egypt seems to have had a very static structure for a long time.  That seems strange in itself.

 

Tom Carberry

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