Study shows the brutality of “opening of the mouth” ritual during mummification in ancient Egypt

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The “opening of the mouth” was an important ritual, conducted by the ancient Egyptians during the mummification process, that aimed at reinstating the deceased’s senses for survival in the afterlife. Described in great details in the funerary texts, like the Pyramid Texts, it usually took place after excerebration (or the removal of the brain) and evisceration (i.e. the removal of the internal organs) and before the final wrapping. A new study, presented at the 11th International Congress of Egyptologists in Florence, shows the extent of brutality involved in the procedure, which often resulted in the breaking and dislocation of some of the corpse’s front teeth.

The new research, published in a recent issue of The Anatomical Record journal, debunks the former belief that mummification, in ancient Egypt, was a delicate and thoughtful affair, consisting of a series of intricate and time-consuming steps, meant to honor the dead and prepare them for the afterlife. Up until now, the “opening of the mouth” was believed to be an innocuous ritual, in the embalming process, that helped restore the deceased’s ability to breathe, eat and even speak in the afterlife. Mariam Ayad, an Egyptology expert at Cairo’s American University, explained:

These actions were accompanied by recitation of specific formulae and incantations in order to enable the deceased to breathe, eat, drink, hear, and see, and ultimately survive the afterlife.

It was achieved by forcefully opening the mummy’s mouth using a set of specialized tools, such as a knife, a rounded blade called peseshkaf, an iron chisel and others. For the research, Frank Rühli, a mummy specialist and the director of University of Zurich’s Institute of Evolutionary Medicine, worked alongside dentist Roger Seiler to examine 51 mummies from the Swiss Mummy Project. Additionally, they investigated over 100 ancient Egyptian skulls, from the university’s Anthropological Insitute and Museum. According to Rühli, CT scans of the mummies showed signs of postmortem trauma to the front teeth, with many of the broken pieces found lodged deep down in the deceased’s throat. The researchers added:

One learns from the texts of the ritual of embalming that after the surgical treatment and the dehydration, the dead body was again cleaned and anointed before being wrapped… Fractures and avulsions of front teeth, which were up to now not sufficiently taken into consideration, are the first evidence for a real physical opening of the mouth procedure during mummification.

Details of the ritual can be found in the Apis papyrus, an ancient Egyptian artifact, written over 2,000 years ago, which describes the embalming of the Apis bull. Following the forceful opening of the corpse’s jaws, a priest would “put his hand in his mouth as far as his hand can reach”. Pieces of cloth, soaked in preservation oils and resins, would then be placed at the opening of the mummy’s throat as well as the lower jaw. Rühli said:

These manipulations caused in many cases teeth fractures and dislocations seen frequently in ancient Egyptian mummies.

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Close-up of the mummy of Antjau, at the Royal Ontario Museum

To access the entire study, head over to The Anatomical Record journal.

Via: Discovery News

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