Flushed with their success in proving when the Iliad was written, scientists have now proven that Herodotus’s Histories do not necessarily reflect universal practices and timeless truths. A pair of anthropologists recently compared Herodotus’s account of Egyptian embalming practices to some scholarly descriptions of and a handful of their own CT scans of surviving mummies. They found that Herodotus’s account, written sometime in the mid-fifth century BC, doesn’t to reflect mummification practices over the course of three millennia stretching from the Old Kingdom to the Roman period. They conclude, therefore, that Herodotus’s account of Egyptian practices was neither accurate nor adequately representative of what really happened. Classicists and historians everywhere are sleeping easier now that science has confirmed their centuries-old conclusions grounded in nothing more than historical analyses.
In “Radiological Evaluation of the Evisceration Tradition in Ancient Egyptian Mummies” (behind Elsevier’s ubiquitous paywall, but the abstract should be free) A. D. Wade and A. J. Nelson offer what seem to be new findings about Egyptian mummies, such as which organs were removed, which were replaced into the body, and who was mummified and how. These findings, in turn, raise some interesting questions, some of which the authors tentatively answer. For example, the authors found that over nearly three millennia Egyptian embalmers commonly removed the same set of internal organs—lungs, liver, stomach, and intestines. They speculate that these organs were removed because their physiological functions would have been clear “even to the anatomically gifted but physiologically challenged knowledge of the Egyptian embalmer.” Although they do admit that this explanation doesn’t work so well for the liver.
What I don’t understand is why the authors cast their work as a corrective to Herodotus. On the one hand, since antiquity scholars have questioned Herodotus’s veracity and accuracy and have pointed out his errors and lies. In his scathing critique, Of Herodotus’s Malice, Plutarch accused Herodotus of the worst kinds of deception: lies dressed up in elegant prose and engaging style that will attract readers. On the other hand, Herodotus was a traveler, a tourist, a collector of strange oddities. As Wade himself remarked to Live Science, many of Herodotus’s “accounts sound more like tourist stories.” Historians and Classicists have long considered Herodotus a collector and teller of stories. Yes, Cicero anointed him the “Father of History,” but his history did not conform to our modernist standards of factual veracity and accuracy. So then, who is responsible for creating Herodotus’s “normative descriptions … [that] impede the investigation of a wide range of variation in Egyptian mummification techniques” that bother Wade and Nelson? And what benefit is there in demonstrating that Herodotus’s report of embalming practices in the 5th century was neither accurate nor adequately representative of embalming practices centuries earlier or centuries later?
Maybe Herodotus didn’t get it wrong. Maybe modern scientists got Herodotus wrong. After all, Herodotus couldn’t have been writing for 21st-century scientists, speaking to their intellectual concerns and interests in terms that they understand. So maybe modern anthropologists and scientists have misunderstood what Herodotus was doing when he wrote his Histories. They should not assume that they can treat Herodotus’s text as an unproblematic source out of which they can fish particular terms and then impose their meaning onto those terms.
And maybe Herodotus got it right. In his account Herodotus distinguishes between embalming and wrapping the body in linen, i.e., mummification. He seems to have been most interested in embalming practices, not mummification. In his Histories, he describes three methods of embalming. In his Histories, book 2, ch. 86 he recounts the most expensive method:
(86) There are men whose sole business this is and who have this special craft. When a dead body is brought to them, they show those who brought it wooden models of corpses, painted likenesses; the most perfect way of embalming belongs, they say, to One whose name it would be impious for me to mention in treating such a matter; the second way, which they show, is less perfect than the first, and cheaper; and the third is the least costly of all. Having shown these, they ask those who brought the body in which way they desire to have it prepared. Having agreed on a price, the bearers go away, and the workmen, left alone in their place, embalm the body. If they do this in the most perfect way, they first draw out part of the brain through the nostrils with an iron hook, and inject certain drugs into the rest. Then, making a cut near the flank with a sharp knife of Ethiopian stone, they take out all the intestines, and clean the belly, rinsing it with palm wine and bruised spices; they sew it up again after filling the belly with pure ground myrrh and casia and any other spices, except frankincense. After doing this, they conceal the body for seventy days, embalmed in saltpetre; no longer time is allowed for the embalming; and when the seventy days have passed, they wash the body and wrap the whole of it in bandages of fine linen cloth, anointed with gum, which the Egyptians mostly use instead of glue; then they give the dead man back to his friends. These make a hollow wooden figure like a man, in which they enclose the corpse, shut it up, and keep it safe in a coffin-chamber, placed erect against a wall.
Families who paid for the most expensive method received an embalmed and wrapped body. Families that opted for the cheaper method or the cheapest method received correspondingly fewer services. Rather than remove the organs, the embalmers dissolved them using oils and then returned the bodies without wrapping them in any way.
Herodotus leaves out a few useful and important pieces of information.
- He doesn’t tell us what happened to the unwrapped bodies after they were returned to the families. Perhaps the families wrapped them in linen, perhaps they didn’t. We can only guess.
- Herodotus also doesn’t tell us how many people opted for each of the methods, so we have no way of knowing what sort of distribution we should expect. Once again, we can only guess.
- He also doesn’t give us any idea about how long these methods had been used. And he couldn’t see the future, so he couldn’t tell us how long they would continue to be practiced. We can only guess.
We should now be able to “formulate a hypothesis that can be empirically tested.” If the account by Herodotus is correct, then evisceration by abdominal incision should be found in some portion of Late Period mummies. Let’s turn now to the authors’ data and test this hypothesis. Table 1 selects out the Late Period mummies from Table 1 in the article.
24 of 25 mummies showed signs of evisceration. 18 of those were through an abdominal incision. Those numbers, 96% and 72% respectively, seem to agree pretty well with what we would expect if Herodotus’s story is accurate and adequately representative of 5th-century practices: some mummies show signs of abdominal incision and evisceration, some don’t. The hypothesis constructed from the stereotyped account by Herodotus is confirmed by the data. And if the data wasn’t sufficiently convincing, as further proof I offer The Historyteachers’ video Mummification.
Despite framing the article as a correction to Herodotus, neither the authors nor the journal editors nor even the reviewers seem to have thought to consult a classicist or historian. Consequently, we get a rather simplistic straw-man argument that adds nothing to but overwhelms their real contributions about mummification practices. The authors and journal editors missed a chance to contribute to an interdisciplinary discussion about how we understand the past and how we can use scientific techniques to refine and extend our understanding of that past.
A.D. Wade and A.J. Nelson, “Radiological evaluation of the evisceration tradition in ancient Egyptian mummies”
HOMO – Journal of Comparative Human Biology 64(2013): 1–28 — http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.jchb.2012.11.005. ↩
Rather than assume Egyptian embalmers had some impoverished and incomplete knowledge of modern physiology, a more fruitful approach might be to ask: “What function did these organs play in Egyptian medicine?” Perhaps Egyptian humoral medicine assigned these organs important functions—later humoral medicine associated the lungs with phlegm and the liver with blood. ↩
The authors also refer to Diodorus Siculus, and both Plutarch and Porphyry receive a few mentions. But their main target seems to be Herodotus’s “normative descriptions”—excluding citations, they mention Herodotus 12 times, i.e., 41.3% of the total references to classical authors. By contrast, they mention Diodorus 7 times, or 24.1% of the references (Porphyry and Plutarch garner only 5 (17.2%) and 4 (13.8%) references each).
When Live Science first reported on the article, they cast it as a corrective to Herodotus. Scientific American’s 2,400-Year-Old Myths of Mummy-Making Busted, CNBC, and others merely reproduced the Live Science. ↩
Two notes about the data in this table:
First, the socio-economic status indicated needs further justification. The authors rely on B.J. Kemp’s distinction, which he developed in studying the Old and Middle Kingdoms and the Second Intermediate Period, roughly 1,100 years before Herodotus wrote. It would be nice to see the authors justify the applicability of these categories, which they treat as static and timeless.
See B.J. Kemp, “Old Kingdom, Middle Kingdom and Second Intermediate Period c. 2686–1552 BC” in
B.G. Trigger, B.J. Kemp, D. O’Connor, A.B. Lloyd (Eds.), Ancient Egypt: A Social History (Cambridge University Press: Cambridge, 1983), pp. 71–182.
Second, whether or not Herodotus would not have recognized the distinction between “per anum” and “perineal” is an open question. And if he recognized it, we still don’t know if he would have bothered to make that distinction in his Histories. ↩