A publication of the Archaeological Institute of America
The entire body is as though agitated from the last movements of agony.
The last convulsions of horrid agony can, after thousands of years, still be seen.
Unknown Woman A
Unknown Man E
Naturally desiccated bodies in Guanajuato, Mexico, include "screamers."
For well over a century, the contorted features of ancient mummies have led to speculation of untold pain and horrible deaths. The examples quoted above are from the examination of Egyptian mummies more than 120 years ago. Today, similar descriptions can still be found in television programs and academic writings. "Is this the face of a queen? What kind of terrible end did she meet?" and "a terrible head wound, an agonized scream," intones the narrator of "Secrets of Egypt's Lost Queen," a 2007 documentary. A photo caption in the scholarly volume Mummies and Death in Egypt (2006) reads "mummy of a boy five years of age, fixed in agony." And the widely covered 2007 discovery of Chachapoya mummies in Peru prompted this newspaper headline "Moment 600 years ago that terror came to Mummies of the Amazon" and copy "Hands over her eyes and her face gripped with terror, the woman's fear of death is all too obvious."
Mummies with their mouths agape or lips pulled back as if they are screaming or writhing in pain are truly startling. Two of the most famous--designated Unknown Woman A and Unknown Man E--are from a cache of royal mummies found in 1881 at Deir el-Bahri in Egypt. When first unwrapped in the late nineteenth century, they provoked the shocked reactions quoted above.
Such mummies, however, are found not just in Egypt but worldwide, in Palermo, Sicily, Guanajuato, Mexico, and, as noted above, in Peru. Some of these bodies were purposefully preserved, though by various methods, while others are natural or, you might say, accidental mummies. What does that say about the supposed frozen-mask-of-agony phenomenon? Are screaming mummies really testaments to horrific deaths? Or are they the result of natural processes, botched or ad hoc mummification jobs, or the depredations of tomb robbers?
Historical representations of the dead offer a clue to answering, why do mummies scream? In particular, Victorian depictions and, later on, film portrayals of the ghost of Jacob Marley come to mind. The deceased business partner of Ebenezer Scrooge in Charles Dickens' "A Christmas Carol," Marley is often shown with a cloth tied around his head and under his jaw. (You can read "A Christmas Carol" and view John Leech's illustrations at the Gutenberg Project website.)
Dickens' story was published in 1843, just two years before the start of the ill-fated Franklin expedition to the Arctic, which saw the loss of two ships and more than 100 men. The frozen burials of some crewmembers were discovered on Beechy Island in northern Canada and excavated in 1984. As with Marley's ghost, a chinstrap had been used to hold the jaw in place. And in April 1865, Maunsell Field, assistant secretary of the treasury under Lincoln, was at the president's deathbed. He published his recollection, noting that "We closed the eyes completely, and placed silver coins upon them, and with a pocket-handkerchief we tied up the jaw, which had already begun to fall." (According to a brief item in the April 2009 issue of American History Magazine, one of the coins and a piece of the handkerchief, afterwards kept by Maunsell, were sold by Heritage Auction Galleries in November 2008 for about $18,000.)
Chinstraps like those of Marley and the others are not restricted to the recent past. Some of the 1800 B.C.-A.D. 200 mummies from western China were equipped with them. Unfortunately it wasn't always either tight enough or the knot slipped, leaving these people with a "screaming" appearance. (Click here to view an example, though the accompanying text is a bit of a garble.)
Why chinstraps? Your jaw bone ascends toward the back (almost at a right angle to the horizontal line of the teeth), ending in a rounded protuberance (the condyloid process), which fits into a shallow groove in your temporal bone on the lower part of your skull. (For more, see Gray's Anatomy of the Human Body, especially the sections "Articulation of the Mandible" and "The Mandible (Lower Jaw)".
The nature of this joint is a key to understanding why mummies scream. Physician Trisha Macnair explains in "Human decomposition after death" on the BBC Health website.
"This temporo-mandibular joint is fairly loose.... Unlike the tight ball-and-socket linking the leg and the hip, the jaw and cranium are held together only by ligaments and muscles. If unimpeded--by the position of the body, wrappings, or very fast desiccation--the jaw will drop down as the muscles relax and decompose after rigor mortis."
So, how do morticians today keep their clients from screaming? Unlike their Victorian predecessors who employed a chinstrap, they use needle and thread. It is somewhere on the continuum between gross and disturbing, but if you really need to know, you can look at this website's note about "Mouth Closure."
Rigor Mortis for Dummies
For more about rigor mortis and cadaveric spasm, see these online resources:
Chemistry of Muscle Fibers;
The Decomposition website
by the Australian Museum's Richard Major;
"Postmortem Changes and Time of Death,"
pdf download from the Department of Forensic Medicine, University of Dundee;
"Autopsy: Postmortem with Dr. Michael Baden"
You can explore the relationship between environmental conditions and rigor mortis at "Estimating the Time of Death" on The Pathology Guy website.
Here's the underlying philosophy: "Properly set features are vital to the best appearance of the deceased. A little care exercised during this phase of preparation will help ensure a good final outcome. Secure the mandible. There are many different ways to do this, and I believe it is a personal choice of each embalmer. However, as a trade embalmer, I believe it is best to suture the mouth closed."
But what about rigor mortis? After death, the joints and muscles stiffen in a condition known as rigor mortis. How soon it begins and how long this lasts depends on temperature and other factors. Onset is from 10 minutes to several hours, beginning with facial muscles. Greatest stiffness may be 12-48 hours after death, and rigor mortis may last up to 72 hours. The bottom line is that the muscles remain contracted until they start decomposing.
Distinct from rigor mortis is cadaveric spasm, an uncommon form of muscular stiffening that occurs at the moment of death and is usually associated with violent deaths. But it only involves groups of muscles, such as those of the forearms and hands. For example, the deceased might clutch something tightly, perhaps a weapon (suicide), aquatic vegetation (drowning victim), or hair or clothing of attacker (someone murdered). Cadaveric spasm involving all the entire body is very rare (most often in combat fatalities). As in rigor mortis, decomposition relaxes the muscles.
So, the architecture of the jaw and its connection to the cranium, along with decomposition, contribute to mummies screaming. But paleopathologist Arthur Aufderheide of University of Minnesota at Duluth says our upbringing is also a factor. In his book The Scientific Study of Mummified Human Remains (2003), he writes that "During infancy we have learned to 'read' expressions on others' faces and translate the messages that such expressions transmit. ...The perpetual interpretation of others' expressions during the human interactions that are part of our daily social intercourse, therefore, lead us inevitably to read and respond emotionally to the expression we see when viewing the face of a mummified corpse."
Essentially we're programmed to look at a face and decode the person's emotions. But the expressions of mummies cannot be used to predict their emotional state at the moment of death, says Aufderheide. "Advanced decay of the face's masseter (chewing) muscle results in a sagging mandible associated with a gaping mouth. Rapid desiccation, on the other hand, can fix facial muscles into their tensed state, generated a strained expression. Varying combinations of these effects in different muscles shaped further by wrappings are capable of creating a range of apparent expressions wide enough to include almost all those seen in living persons." This is true of ancient mummies, but is accentuated when bodies are in more recognizably modern garb, like the frozen corpses of the Franklin expedition crewmembers or the deceased residents of Palermo.
"In brief," Auferderheide concludes, "expressions on mummies represent post-mortem artifacts. Much nonsense has been written in efforts to relate a mummy's expression to the emotions experienced by that individual at the moment of death. ...Yet all are artifacts of decay processes and are useless as guides to the mummies' agonal emotions."
Even though it's our own projection, there's still no denying that some mummies appear to be screaming or grimacing in agony. The examples cited above show that that has impressed everyone from scholars to newspaper reporters and documentary writers. No wonder the Hollywood mummy Imhotep and his cohorts use the dropped jaw or its scare and shock factor in The Mummy (1999) and The Mummy Returns (2001).
No wonder, too, that it makes for compelling book jackets and gripping headlines. And even the lofty art world may not be immune. It's possible that the Norwegian artist Edvard Munch's famous composition "The Scream" was inspired by a mummy.
The mummy of Ramesses VI shows the type of damage caused by the pillagers of the royal mummies.
Are all screaming mummies--including the famous ones from Egypt, Unknown Woman A and Unknown Man E--just the result of natural processes? The labels A and E were given by Gaston Maspero, the head of the Egyptian Antiquities Service, who assigned letters to the half-dozen unidentified mummies in the Deir el-Bahri royal mummy cache. But it could be that A is Meritamun, a daughter of Ramesses II (1279-1212 B.C.) and Nefertiri, and it might be that E is Pentewere, the son of Ramesses III (1185-1153 B.C.). So, they are likely from the 19th and 20th Dynasties--when mummification of the elite was quite good. Given that, how do we explain their appearance?
Damage by pillaging tomb robbers can be ruled out as a cause of screaming in these two. E has no evidence of such damage, while A shows the kind of destruction caused by looters: her arms are missing and the left side of her abdomen is broken into. While her mouth is gaping, the skin on the cheeks is intact, indicating her jaw wasn't forced open after desiccation. Another example of the handicraft of looters is the mummy of Ramesses VI (1141-1133 B.C.), which was more or less torn apart by them (with a slightly open mouth as a result).
Unknown Man E is an oddity. Included in his coffin was a sheepskin, a ritually unclean object for ancient Egyptians. His organs were apparently not removed, so he didn't undergo the usual elaborate mummification process, but he was included in the royal mummy cache. Brier made several new observations, such as resin had been poured into the mouth, and the undecorated (but high quality) wooden coffin E was found in had been hastily cut back to accommodate the mummy. Even more than with Unknown Woman A, something precluded the careful arrangement of this mummy. Unlike A, we might have a historical reason. Maspero suggested that E was Prince Pentewere, who was involved in a conspiracy against his father, Ramesses III, and after trial was allowed to take his own life. Other identifications have been suggested: a Hittite prince sent to Egypt to marry Tutankhamun's widow or an important Egyptian who died abroad and was mummified in an ad hoc way by local priests. Brier concluded "While I cannot prove that this is the mummy of Pentewere, that identification seems to fit the curious facts of Unknown Man E." In this scenario, E/Pentewere's body was given some minimal mummification by sympathizers who were able to secret him into a tomb in the Valley of the Kings. "In Unknown Man E," Brier told me, "his jaw may be open because the poured resin down the throat and left him with open mouth."
Why do mummies scream? It certainly is not because their face was frozen instantly in the middle of a horrific, agonized death. The answer is a combination of anatomy and, as Aufderheide concluded, our own human upbringing, learning how to read emotions in faces. Intervention--whether a chin strap in Victorian days or the elaborate mummification process of New Kingdom Egypt--sometimes prevented the gaping jaw that we decode as a scream. But for one reason or another that didn't succeeed in all cases. The compelling results--the screaming mummies--have, and will undoubtedly continue to, inspire journalists and documentary script writers, book-jacket designers, movie producers, and maybe an artist now and then. But, then again, as my colleague Paul Bahn points out, "How do we know they aren't singing?"
Mark Rose is AIA online editorial director. For a complete listing of references used in this story, please click here!