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How to make a mummy - Len Bloch

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As anyone who’s seen a mummy knows, ancient Egyptian priests went to a lot of trouble to evade decomposition. But how successful were they? Len Bloch details the mummification process and examines its results thousands of years later.

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Meet The Creators

  • Educator Len Bloch
  • Animator Nadav Arbel
  • Sound Designer Stephen LaRosa
  • Artist Shahar Kober
  • Narrator Susan Zimmerman
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If ancient Egyptian mummies could talk, they would tell us a lot about life and death in both the ancient and modern worlds. Ancient Egypt was a complex society, with Pharaohs, merchants, peasants and slaves. The rich could afford elaborate mummification rituals, while less wealthy people underwent simpler procedures. Ancient Egyptian mummification was practiced for thousands of years, and methods changed over time. The lesson describes how a rich person might have been mummified about 100 years before Alexander the Great invaded Egypt.

The ancient Greek historian Herodotus described mummification as he understood it to be practiced in his time. Read Herodotus’ “The Histories,” then for a specific excerpt containing his description of mummification, click here. Very few mummifications were exactly as Herodotus described, but his description seems on the whole accurate, and it has become the standard picture. One of the best ways to learn more about mummification is to use ancient Egyptian techniques. Two modern researchers mummified a human body using the methods described by Herodotus. This provided great insight into the process and filled in a lot of details missing from Herodotus’s account.

Decomposition is a complex process, and no two decaying corpses are exactly alike. Still, the process can be understood by thinking of these five stages:

1) Fresh: Decomposition starts instantly, as the normal cellular processes of enzymatic breakdown continue, and the bacteria living in and on the body continue to consume food and reproduce. Flies and other insects quickly arrive, and lay their eggs on the corpse.
2) Bloat: As the bacteria continue to consume the corpse, they produce gases that make the body swell and become frothy. The insect eggs grow into maggots, and these eventually eat their way out of the corpse. The skin ruptures, and the gases escape producing a strong odor.
3) Active decay: The maggots and other decomposers are rapidly consuming the body, and the strong odor persists. The stage ends when the maggots are ready to become mature flies.
4) Advanced decay: Insect activity is reduced, but nutrients continue to leech into the surrounding area. If the body is resting on soil, the nutrient levels get so high that most plants die.
5) Dry remains: Eventually soil nutrient levels return to normal, and plant growth resumes. Often the only visible remains of the corpse are dry bones and skin.

The study of ancient diseases provides insight on history, and it helps us understand how patterns of disease change over time. Often it raises more questions than it answers. Visit National Geographic’s: 8 Mummy Finds Revealing Ancient Disease for more information.

In the modern world, tuberculosis is often associated with crowded living conditions such as urban slums. Has tuberculosis always been a part of human life, or is it a disease of crowding? Genetic evidence suggests that the bacteria that cause tuberculosis was carried by small bands of humans as they spread from Africa around 40,000 years ago, long before the first villages or cities. But evidence from Egyptian mummies suggests that the disease didn’t appear in the Nile Valley until the rise of large complex kingdoms about 5000 years ago. No one knows how to reconcile these two contradictory pieces of evidence.

Many people consider cancer a disease of modernity, caused by chemical pollution or the stress of modern life. But is this true? Cancer seems to have been rare in Egyptian mummies– even among the elderly. Many scientists conclude that cancer was less common in the ancient world than it is today. Others argue that without modern medicine, ancient Egyptians rarely died of advanced cancer, and often succumbed to early stage cancers hadn’t yet spread to the bones, and therefore weren’t preserved in mummies.

For now, the mummies won’t reveal their secret knowledge about the origins of diseases like tuberculosis and cancer. But scientists have ways to make them talk.
Avatar for kitty cat
flies laid eggs on the mummy's that is so gross that means the baby flies ate the mummy's.
06/24/2015 • 
 11 Responses
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Avatar for Ella H
The organs and all that are WAY beyond gross, but I had no idea that mummies were taxed as salted fish! That is so cool! Plus, I also had no idea that they used salt! Not just any salt, but a mixture of to salts! How cool is that?
08/07/2015 • 
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Avatar for Wilson Camilo Llano
It's a unbelieved process with five stages. This process seems to have been in ancient word.
10/25/2015 • 
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Avatar for Mohamed Tamer
01/17/2017 • 
 1 Response
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Mike Burke
kinda gross but cool
01/31/2017 • 
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06/01/2017 • 
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06/01/2017 • 
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Lujeyn Ahmad
06/04/2017 • 
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Avatar for Madalena Pinto
thats very yucky but is efficaceçy avoid the decompositon
06/18/2017 • 
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Avatar for Mann Patel
Mann Patel
03/03/2018 • 
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Avatar for Graziela Alberti
I found it very interesting that they took the organs, they first removed the pokes and that it was difficult to remove the heart
08/14/2019 • 
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Avatar for Letícia Freire
08/19/2019 • 
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Avatar for Arbin Rai
That all of these are cool
03/19/2020 • 
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Avatar for Kensei Ishimura
cool
11/09/2020 • 
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11/16/2020 • 
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02/12/2021 • 
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Avatar for Jesse Finnegan
ok
02/17/2021 • 
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Avatar for Rylie Bruntz
I learned that a lot of them died from air pollution.
02/17/2021 • 
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02/19/2021 • 
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Avatar for Meya Ordway
I'm curious how they came up with the mummification process and how many failed attempts there were.
03/03/2021 • 
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Avatar for Adelaide Buzay
Ok.. this was not expected. I get that the taxes are high, but why market them like salted fish?? THAT'S CANNIBALISM!
03/11/2021 • 
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Avatar for Bridie Cornally
This may be a bit gross but it teaches us all about the life cycle of mummies from when they die. This teaches us all about how they are wrapped how long they have to sit for and what happens after they die like when they pull everything out and stuff. This is very interesting.
04/20/2021 • 
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04/20/2021 • 
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04/20/2021 • 
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Avatar for Zara Shaw
It is so gross how they mush their brains the flush it out their nose. Its completely gross, but i guess how else would you get it out without damaging the outside body?
04/20/2021 • 
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Avatar for Clea Corset
The video describes that the brain is mashed up and according to the Greek historian Herodotus but how did they get this information? And they lived in the desert so how did they get Tree resin?
04/20/2021 • 
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Avatar for magnus gregory
Is honestly just weird
04/20/2021 • 
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Avatar for grace dunning
i get why ancient egyptians had to remove the organs, to stop bacteria from getting to the bodies, but why did they preserve the organs, why not just chuck them away?
04/20/2021 • 
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Avatar for Elsie Lynch
It was important in their religion to preserve the dead body in as life-like a manner as possible. So successful were they that today we can view the mummified body of an Egyptian and have a good idea of what he or she looked like in life, 3000 years ago.
04/20/2021 • 
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Avatar for Ayden Pandey
You know that they could have just took the brain out and tossed it.
04/24/2021 • 
 1 Response
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06/01/2021 • 
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06/01/2021 • 
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06/01/2021 • 
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06/01/2021 • 
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06/01/2021 • 
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06/01/2021 • 
 2 Responses
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06/01/2021 • 
 1 Response
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Avatar for maxi hawkins
06/01/2021 • 
 3 Responses
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Avatar for Tessa B
i learnt so much from this epic lesson, it was gruesome but so interesting I LOVE MUMMIES!
06/01/2021 • 
 3 Responses
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Avatar for maxi hawkins
06/01/2021 • 
 3 Responses
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Avatar for Allegra C
Why don't we still do this??
06/01/2021 • 
 2 Responses
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Avatar for maxi hawkins
06/01/2021 • 
 1 Response
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Avatar for Genevieve Beattie
I'm a lil bit concerned ngl
06/01/2021 • 
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06/02/2021 • 
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09/23/2021 • 
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Avatar for Zayden DePeters
Because turned their brain turned their bran into soup and organs have been removed and salted that is just mean
09/23/2021 • 
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Avatar for Aiyana Hanks
hi
09/23/2021 • 
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Avatar for Grace Lee
Egyptian mummification is a sacred, and complex process. Imagine you were a pharoh, and you died. If you could watch over them, you would have to watch them smash your brain, and remove your liver, guts, stomach, and more, just to preserve your body. It is a complex and lengthy process. You also have to wait 35 days extra just to watch your body get its fluid sucked out.
10/25/2022 • 
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About TED-Ed Animations

TED-Ed Animations feature the words and ideas of educators brought to life by professional animators. Are you an educator or animator interested in creating a TED-Ed Animation? Nominate yourself here »

Meet The Creators

  • Educator Len Bloch
  • Animator Nadav Arbel
  • Sound Designer Stephen LaRosa
  • Artist Shahar Kober
  • Narrator Susan Zimmerman

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