Afterlife is a blog series containing stories related to burial and mourning practices in different cultures.

Puzzle of the Egyptian Mummy: What happened on the journey to eternity?

The manner of embalming and arranging bodies for burial in Egypt varied through a period of over two millennia when mummification was practised. The ‘classical’ form was developed in the New Kingdom (about 1570-1075 BC). For example crossing of the arms was adopted then for royal males. However, such an arm position could be sometimes found in ordinary mummies from the Late Period (about 664 BC) through to the end of Ptolemaic Period (30 AD).

X-ray of upper-legs, showing clenched hands.
X-ray of upper-legs, showing clenched hands. Image: Australian Museum
© Australian Museum

Even cursory inspection of our Australian Museum ‘soldier mummy’ reveals something odd. The arms are positioned straight along the body, but the hands are not opened. Instead the ‘fists’ are awkwardly twisted and tightly wrapped to the torso. And the body trunk is unusually narrow, even more striking in such a tall man (about 170cm).

Forensic examination discovered that the mummy was not only re-packaged but also ‘trimmed.’ It was unwrapped, at some stage in the past, and the pelvic bones, several ribs and most of the spine was removed. A much slimmer body was wrapped again, using the wrapping method typical for the Ptolemaic period. In addition some linen rolls and two rods were inserted into the wrappings. This was done, possibly, to provide stability to the body trunk from which the backbone and pelvis were missing. Such care for external appearance (suggesting intact body) was observed also in the Ptolemaic period. But the clenched hands could not be hidden. It is likely that the mummy was originally arranged with arms crossed on its chest and presumably holding some customary accessories. So, the repackaged mummy looks almost correct, but not entirely.

And there is more. The coffin, as we related earlier, was also modified, repaired, repainted and possibly fitted with an unrelated lid. The most likely reason for ‘re-doing’ the mummy and the coffin was an attempt to match them together. The coffin was originally made for another, much smaller body. But why our mummy was without his own coffin and how the current coffin became available, we may never discover.

X-ray of lower torso, showing absence of the pelvic bones.
X-ray of lower torso, showing absence of the pelvic bones. Image: Australian Museum
© Australian Museum

We may wonder, however, that the matching mummy with unrelated coffin could have happened in the context of high demand for Egyptian antiquities in the late 19th century (when it was purportedly excavated, in Thebes). We know that mummy ‘sourcing’ and trading revolved around money and as much as mummies were desired, they would fetch the best price when in a coffin. It is easy to imagine the early-style Egyptian ‘archaeology’, focussed on obtaining ‘goods’ (rather than careful investigation) would result in many bodies without coffins and some coffins without the mummies. The trader’s job (and commercial interest) was to put them together. It is likely that from such dealers our benefactor Robert Lucas-Tooth purchased the mummies.

But there is another, tantalising, if only slight, possibility that some interfering with the mummy, and maybe with the coffin, happened (in part) not in the 19th century but in the antiquity. And this is how it could happen according to a hypothetical scenario suggested by Dr Meiya Sutisno (Forensic Scientist):

Coffin of Egyptian Mummy
Coffin of Egyptian Mummy Image: Stuart Humphreys
© Australian Museum

If a mummified body was lost or destroyed, for whatever reason, its ‘re-creation’ was sometimes attempted. In such cases, another, often older body was substituted for the missing one. Often some adjustments were necessary. For example if the substitute was larger, limbs could be amputated or disjointed, to fit into an original coffin. Some adding or removing bones as well as re-wrapping may have been desirable to recreate the mummy that outwardly resembled the original. For this reason more care was taken of external appearance than actual content. Such cases of re-creation, or false mummies were more frequent in Ptolemaic Period (305 – 30 BC). It is worth pointing out that the carbon date obtained for the wrapping of our mummy (10 BC) indicates the late years of ancient Egyptian civilisation.


BC (or BCE) – means Before Common Era, and indicates the years counted back from the first year of the Western Calendar. For example, in 30 BC Rome conquered Egypt and Cleopatra took her own life. AD indicates Common Era.

Carbon or radiocarbon dating (also known as carbon-14 dating) is a method for working out the age of an organic material (wood, charcoal) by measuring the relative proportion of decaying carbon 14 in relation to stable carbon 12 (and 13) present in organic matter. A Lower proportion of carbon 14 indicates a longer period of time which can be calculated, with a varying degree of precision, in years elapsed since the wood was cut or burned.


Meiya Sutisno. Unveiling “Muharib” the Unknown Ancien Egyptian Warrior. Unpublished Report: The Forensic Face and Body Mapping Unit: University of Technology Sydney. 2014.