Let’s learn about mummies

The ancient dead are fun, spooky — and a great chance to learn about the past

a photo of a mummy in a sarcophagus

Mummies are preserved bodies — bodies that give scientists ways to understand the past.

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The word “mummy” conjures images of gold-coated, bandage-wrapped bodies, hidden away in pyramids. These mummies come complete with mazes and hieroglyphs and maybe a curse or two. But in fact, a mummy can refer to any body that has had its tissue preserved after death.

Sometimes, this preservation happens on purpose — like the mummies in ancient Egypt. But other cultures in history have also tried to preserve their dead. Ancient people in Great Britain made their own mummies, for instance. So did people in what is now Chile and Peru. They were at it long before anyone in Egypt or Great Britain.

But mummies can also form by accident. Ötzi is a man found frozen in ice more than 5,000 years old. He is a mummy. So are bodies found preserved in bogs or in deserts.

Because mummies are much more preserved than most buried bodies, scientists can study them to learn more about ancient people. Researchers have found that some mummies had tattoos, for example. Scientists have even used 3-D printing of a mummy’s vocal tract to find out how an ancient Egyptian priest’s voice might have sounded in life.

Want to know more? We’ve got some stories to get you started:

3-D printing helps resurrect an ancient Egyptian mummy’s voice: A replica of the mummy’s vocal tract reveals what the man may once have sounded like (2/17/2020) Readability: 7.1

Ancient Egyptian mummy tattoos come to light: Infrared images reveal eyes, animals and more on seven women (1/14/2020) Readability: 7.7

DNA from African mummies tie these folk to Middle Easterners: High-tech genetic methods and skilled techniques reveal genetic origin to the east, not the south (6/27/2017) Readability: 6.7

Explore more:

Scientists Say: Mummy

Explainer: What is 3-D printing?

Cool Jobs: Museum Science

Mummies existed before Egypt’s pyramids

Ötzi the mummified Iceman actually froze to death

Bronze Age mummies unearthed in Great Britain

Mummies share their secrets

The origins of mummies

Word find

The Field Museum in Chicago is offering a mummy exploration as part of their game Inside Explorer. Check out detailed scans of a woman who was mummified when Egypt was part of the Roman Empire.

Bethany Brookshire was a longtime staff writer at Science News Explores and is the author of the book Pests: How Humans Create Animal Villains. She has a Ph.D. in physiology and pharmacology and likes to write about neuroscience, biology, climate and more. She thinks Porgs are an invasive species.

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