13 Days of Halloween: Early antibacterials made mummies possible.

We’ve all seen it. The image of the mummy — arms stretched forward, its entire body wrapped in loose linen bandages — plodding along doing its best Frankenstein imitation. Sometimes, it makes guttural moaning sounds. Other times, it moves silently, though no less lumberingly. Its very existence is often the result of and the harbinger of ancient curses manifest through time. 

Like Count Dracula and Jekyll and Hyde, the monster mummy has its roots in the imaginations of Victorian Britain. The expansion of the British Empire around the world also allowed the nation’s budding archaeologists to explore then plunder artifacts from the territories they captured. The Victoria and Albert Museum is living proof of just how extensive the process was. As a result, mummies made their way from Egypt to England. 

The public was fascinated with all elements of Egyptology, but in particular with mummies. Always perceptive to new stories to exploit, writers began reimagining the mysterious relics, literally breathing new life into them. No less than Bram Stoker wrote about a book celebrating the exotic and potentially threatening mummy. Early versions differed from the Halloween version in significant ways. Firstly, they were usually women and the story lines portrayed them through sexual lenses (because who wouldn’t want to make love to a millenia old corpse, right?). They were the romantic interests and eventual conquests of the superior, European protagonists – a familiar trope during the heyday of the continent’s colonization of foreign lands. It wasn’t until the 1930s that the monster mummy truly came into its own, thanks to Boris Karloff’s portrayal in the 1932 film, The Mummy. (Another coincidental link between Dracula and the mummy.)

The mummified remains of human beings isn’t exclusive to ancient Egypt. However, thanks to the aforementioned circumstances in Victorian England, it became the version that seeped into Halloween traditions, itself a product of the region’s folktales and festivals. As such, it’s that version we’ll take a quick look at here.

Detailed descriptions or instructions of the Egyptian mummification process have not made it down to the present day. However, there are some texts that offer some detail and several tantalizing hints about how bodies were embalmed. At the top of that list is Book 2 of Herodutus’ Histories. Among other details, the historian’s mention of the use of natron in the dessication process instrumental in the preservation of bodies. The mineral is a naturally ocurring mixture of sodium carbonate dehecahydrate and sodium bicarbonate, sodium chloride, and sodium sulfate. (Modern mineralogy takes a narrower view of natron and considers sodium carbonate decahydrate the true form.)

In addition to taking out all internal organs except for the heart, ancient Egyptian embalmers needed to combat a variety of microorganisms involved in the decomposition process. They rinced the skill with unknown chemicals that cleared the remainder of brain tissue and also killed bacteria. The abdominal cavity was rinsed with palm wine and an infusion of crushed herbs and spices. Natron was allowed to draw moisture out of the body for 70 days, after which the cadaver was washed again. At this point, the soon-to-be-mummy was wrapped in the linen bandages so familiar to Halloween iconography. The bandages had an important role to play. When covered with a layer of gum, it served to not only keep moisture away from the body but also to serve as an antimicrobial agent.

An important step in the carbon cycle, decomposition occurs thanks to bacteria and fungi. Bacteria from the gastro-intestinal tract are thought to be the first significant contributors to the process’s first aerobic phase, putrefaction. Once those microorganisms has used up all the available oxygen, an anaerobic phase occurs. Staphylococci are known to be active during the aerobic phase while Clostridium makes up a large part of the putrefactive anaerobic phase.

So to bring this all back to the science of Halloween, there’s actually a whole lot of anatomy, chemistry, and microbiology going on behind the scenes of those mummies you see all over Walgreens.


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