Ancient Egyptians Forced Open Mouths During Mummification

Rossella Lorenzi

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Dnews files 2015 08 mummy teeth 670 jpgA CT scan of a female mummy, dating from the 8th to 7th century BC and kept at the Musee d’art et d’histoire, Geneva, Switzerland, shows several teeth in the rear of the oral cavity. © THE ANATOMICAL RECORD, 298:1208–1216 2015, WILEY PERIODICALS, INC.

Ancient Egyptians were likely to lose some of their front teeth before they could become mummies, says a new research debated at the International Congress of Egyptologists in Florence.

Taking place after excerebration (brain removal) and evisceration (body organ removal) and before final wrapping, the procedure would force open the mouths of the deceased with a knife and iron chisel, breaking and dislocating teeth in the process.

The procedure appears to be in contrast to the delicate and thoughtful steps taken during the mummification process.

The “opening of the mouth” was so far known to Egyptologists as a central yet innocuous ritual in mummification, aimed at restoring the deceased’s senses for the afterlife.

The symbolic animation of the finished mummy was achieved through a series of ritual actions that involved the repeated touching of the mouth and eyes with various specialized implements.

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,” said Mariam Ayad, associate professor of Egyptology at the American University in Cairo.

Ayad presented a study on the opening of the mouth ritual as seen in scenes from ancient Egyptian mortuary monuments.

But according to mummy expert Frank Rühli, director of the Institute of Evolutionary Medicine at the University of Zurich, parts of the ceremony actually correspond to a physical and sometime probably rather brutal opening of the deceased’s mouth.

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,” Rühli told Discovery News.

Rühli and dentist Roger Seiler from the Institute of Evolutionary Medicine at the University of Zurich, investigated 51 mummies from the Swiss Mummy project and more than 100 from the skull collection of the University of Zurich Anthropological Institute and Museum.

It emerged that several mummies suffered postmortem (after death) trauma to the teeth, and CT scans even showed that in some cases broken teeth ended up deep down in the throat.

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,” the researchers wrote in a issue of the journal The Anatomical Record entirely devoted to the study of mummies around the world.

Based on what was written in the papyri detailing the mummification of the Apis bull, which corresponds to embalming of high-status people, the jaws had to be forced apart with instruments as a priest “put his hand in his mouth as far as his hand can reach.”

In order to wipe out and anoint the oral cavity with oil and resins, the priest laid two cloths on the opening of the throat, a third on the lower jaw and a fourth inside the mouth.

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

He noted that the term “opening of the mouth procedure” should now be used to distinguish it from the purely symbolic actions of the opening of the mouth ritual.