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What's in a Name?

Updated: Oct 21, 2022

Written by Lexi Adams, LASM Curator

Image 1: LASM's Mummy

(see "Image Credits" below for details and more information about these images)

Ancient Egypt is a fascinating subject. The term brings to mind pyramids, pharaohs, and mummies. But while we know a lot about this enthralling topic, there is still so much that we do not know...even people WHO we do not know. Have you ever wondered about the identities of the ancient Egyptians? For all that historians have discovered, we still do not know who they were as individuals. What we do know is that they lived lives very similar to our own. They had families, wore nice clothing, had jobs, and, of course, they died. 

Much like the way we plan for our own funerals, the ancient Egyptians planned for their journey to the Afterlife. A common misconception is that Egyptians were preoccupied with death. This may stem from the fact that modern knowledge of their culture comes from their tombs, which were filled with elaborate displays of objects, and their bodies, which were preserved with such care that scientists can recreate what the person may have looked like in life. But today, we understand that the ancient Egyptians were not preoccupied with death itself; they just enjoyed life so much that they wanted to bring the objects which brought them joy to the Afterlife. See below for an image of the 18th dynasty Pharaoh Tutankhamun, displayed in his elaborate burial chamber in his underground tomb in the Valley of the Kings.

Through studying the tombs and bodies of mummified persons, scientists are able to determine the age, sex, height, social standing, possible health issues, and cause of death of the individual. But how do we determine who that person was? What was their name? Who were their family members? There are many personal and fascinating questions that researchers seek to uncover when studying a mummy. But how is it possible to know so much about a person who died more than 2,000 years ago? 

To answer this question, we must first understand how the Egyptians believed the Soul behaved after death. Egyptians mummified their dead to preserve the physical body. They believed that the body was a vessel for the soul; a body that was unrecognizable would not be able to protect the soul in the Afterlife. The ancient Egyptians understood the soul to consist of three parts: the Ka, Ba, and Akh. The Ka was the person’s “double” -- it would live in the preserved body after death and use the furniture, food, and other objects in the tomb. The Ba was visualised as a human-headed bird. The Ba could travel between the worlds of the living and the dead. The Akh was the part of the spirit which would travel to the underworld for judgement by the god Maat. Worthy souls who passed judgement were admitted into the Afterlife to live among the gods.

Image 3: Herodetus

To prepare the body and therefore preserve the vessel for the soul, the mummification process was developed. Priests performed the sacred practice, but death involved business transactions as well as religious ceremonies. The ancient Greek historian Herodetus reported that there were three levels of treatment that the body could receive. The first and most expensive process involves removing the brain and inner organs of the deceased, preserving their heart for judgement and purifying the body. The priests would then thoroughly draw all moisture from the body using natron salts over a period of 70 days. Then, the body would be wrapped in hundreds of yards of linen. The linen could have special prayers written on it to protect the deceased. The finished mummy would then be returned to the family for burial. The second and third levels of mummification were less costly. They also included cleansing the body, though with less elaborate methods, and drying it out during the required 70-day waiting period. Neither of these more affordable methods report the use of linen for wrapping.

Image 4: Cartonnage

When the mummification process was finished the wrapped body still needed adornment. This could come in the form of cartonnage masks, panels, or full entombment in a case of cartonnage. Cartonnage is very similar to papier-mâché today, it is made of linen or papyrus soaked in plaster and layered together to create a smooth surface on which decorative and protective imagery could be painted. The LASM mummy has cartonnage panels draped over his linen wrapped body. The panels are painted with lotus pendants, a winged scarab with a solar disk, the goddesses Nut and Isis, as well as many other symbols and deities. 

Once all other processes were complete, families could provide a sarcophagus, similar to a coffin, for their loved one. The sarcophagus would be carved from wood and painted with beautiful imagery, prayers, and sometimes...a name. It is a rare gift to know the true identity of a mummy. Pharaoh Tutankamen, also known as King Tut, is one of only a few mummies in the world for whom we have a positive identification. Persons of royal lineage are more easily identified than lay-people because of the cartouche that was included on the paintings of their sarcophagi.

A cartouche is an oval shape with a rope depicted around the outside. The rope is believed to have the power to protect the writing inside the oval. Cartouches most often protected the name and title of a royal individual but could also hold a prayer for the deceased. Scroll to the activity below to learn how to make your own cartouche!

Image 5: Cartouche

Image 6: Map of Egypt

The mummy at LASM was discovered in Thebes, Egypt in 1921. For many years, we believed him to be a priestess because of the white-faced mask, a color usually reserved for women and those who worked in religious temples, that accompanied his body when he arrived in 1964. In 2007, thanks to CT imagery, it was revealed that our priestess was in fact a male. It also became clear that the mask was not his, not only because of the white color, but also because the nose of the mask was misshapen and the body of the mummy did not show similar damage, as you can see in the image below. This told us that the mask was not intended for our mummy and was likely paired with him long before he came to LASM but after he left Egypt. Our mummy was also separated from any sarcophagus that might have once accompanied his body, so we do not know his name or any details about his daily life in Ptolemaic Egypt. 

Image 7: Mummy Mask

You may ask why we do not give the mummy a name if we will never know the name he used in life. In much the same way that you would not assume the name of a person today, we do not assume the name of the mummy. In the future, we hope to learn even more about the person he was and the life he led, but for today, we are satisfied that we are able to share him with all of you!



Image 1: 
Adult Mummy, c. 300 B.C., Ptolemaic period. Thebes, Egypt. Louisiana Art & Science Museum Collection, 1964.001.001.1

Image 2: 
This picture taken on January 31, 2019, shows the golden sarcophagus of the 18th dynasty Pharaoh Tutankhamun, displayed in his burial chamber in his underground tomb in the Valley of the Kings on the west bank of the Nile river opposite the southern Egyptian city of Luxor. Photo: MOHAMED EL-SHAHED/AFP via Getty Images.

Image 3:
A Roman copy (2nd century AD) of a Greek bust of Herodotus from the first half of the 4th century BC. Courtesy of Wikimedia commons.

Image 4:
Mummy cartonnage (detail), c. 300 B.C., Ptolemaic period. Thebes, Egypt. Louisiana Art & Science Museum Collection, 1964.001.001.1.

According to ancient sources, there were three levels of mummification treatment that a family could choose for their loved one. This cartonnage is of high quality, indicating that this mummy received the best treatment that could be given to the deceased.

Image 5:
Ancient Egyptian cartouche of Thutmose III, Karnak, Egypt. Courtesy of Wikimedia commons.

Image 6:
Encyclopedia Britanica, s.v. “Internet.” Chicago: Encyclopaedia Britannica, 2009. 

Our mummy was discovered in 1921 near the city of Thebes, over 400 miles south of Cairo in Egypt. 

Image 7:
Mummy mask, c. 300 B.C., Ptolemaic period. Thebes, Egypt. Louisiana Art & Science Museum Collection, 1964.001.001.2.

Every object in a tomb can provide clues to uncover the identity of a mummified person. In this case, the mask that was paired with the mummy tells more about what may have happened to the mummy after the tomb was opened. If you look closely, you will see that the nose of this mask has been flattened; the nose of our mummy is not flattened. The face of this mask is also white, a color usually reserved for priestesses. Our mummy is male. Therefore, we can conclude that this is not the original mask that our mummy was buried with. Sometime after his tomb was excavated, his mask was switched. Could his sarcophagus have been given to another mummy too?

Hands-on Activities:

Design an Egyptian Tomb!

Glossary of Ancient Egyptian Terms:

Amphora are a type of large oval-bodied storage container that originated in Greece and quickly spread throughout the ancient world. Amphorae were used to store wine, olive oil, honey, dried grains, and other foodstuffs. Variations in design indicate function or stylistic preference.

Hydria are three-handled vessels made of clay or bronze and used to carry water. The two handles on both sides of the vessel were used for carrying. The third handle in the center was used for pouring water. A hydria with only two handles is referred to as a Kalpis.

Oinochoe are wine jugs, the shape originating in ancient Greece. They are identified by their single handle and trefoil-shaped mouth.

Olpe, like oinochoe, are used as wine jugs. The body of an Olpe is typically more cylindrical than that of an oinochoe.

Scrolls were made of papyrus, a plant native to Egypt. The paper-like material was used for writing and rolled for easy storage. Writing on scrolls typically flowed from left to right in vertical columns. 

Scarab beetles are a sacred symbol of resurrection in ancient Egypt. They are associated with the god Khepri, who pushed the sun across the sky. As such, they are often placed in Egyptian tombs to safely carry a person into the Afterlife.

Couches and other furniture objects were often included in tomb settings. They were meant to be used by the deceased, just as the food and wine enclosed in the tomb were meant to be used.

Canopic jars are lidded vessels used in the mummification process. These jars held organs of the deceased that were removed from the body during the drying process. Each jar could depict the head of a different god or goddess meant to protect the individual in the afterlife.

Hapi, or Hapy, one of the four sons of Horus, the falcon-headed Egyptian god of kingship and the sky, is depicted as a Baboon and protects the canopic jar holding the lungs. He was the protective fertility god of the Nile and presided over the North.

Duamutef, another one of the four sons of Horus, is depicted as a Jackal and protects the canopic jar holding the stomach. He was a protective god and presided over the East.

Imset, another one of the four sons of Horus, is depicted as a human male and protects the canopic jar holding the liver. He was a protective god and presided over the South.

Qebehsenuef, another one of the four sons on Horus, is depicted as a Hawk and protects the canopic jar holding the intestines. He was a protective god and presided over the West.

Design Your Own Egyptian Cartouche!

A cartouche is an oval shape with a rope depicted around the outside. The rope is believed to have the power to protect the writing inside the oval. Cartouches most often protected the name and title of a royal individual but could also hold a prayer for the deceased.

Materials Needed:
2 cardboard paper towel tubes
2 straws
Brown paper bag
Rubber bands
Crayons, colored pencils, or markers
Cartouche pattern (or create your own) and hieroglyphic alphabet chart, which can be found here:
1. Cut both cardboard tubes horizontally down the middle.

2. Apply glue inside both tubes and roll them as tightly as possible, then place each one around a straw.

3. Wrap both straws with rubber bands to keep them tightly wound and allow them to dry. 

4. While your straws are drying, draw and then color your hieroglyphic message on your cartouche. Ms. Marion chose to use the second Hieroglyphic Alphabet Chart at because she likes all of the colorful symbols. Remember: Hieroglyphs are word pictures that represent the SOUNDS of the Ancient Egyptian language, so you will not need a symbol for every "letter" in your name or message. Do choose a symbol for every basic "sound" in your name or message. Optional: For younger artists, tape the Hieroglyphic Alphabet Chart underneath your cartouche and on top of a window. The light coming through the window will make it easy to trace your symbols! Cut out your cartouche when you finish your artwork.

5. Cut out a large strip of brown paper from your paper bag to make the scroll. The scroll in the photo example is the same length as LASM Educator Ms. Marion's cat, Shelby!

6. Now that your covered straws have had time to dry, take the rubber bands off and tape your straws to either side of your brown paper.

7. Glue your cartouche onto the center of your brown paper scroll and roll it up. Show your scroll to a family member and see if they can crack the code! Can you guess Ms. Marion's secret message?

For More Information:

Follow this link to tour five Egyptian Landmarks, including two ancient tombs!

Read more about the mummification process as told by Herodetus in c. 425 B.C.
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