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September 20, 2013
CONTACT: Gordon Ovenshine

Students learn mummification skills

SLIPPERY ROCK, Pa. -Most people have an instant reaction to seeing a mummy, in person or pictures - "Wow."

Slippery Rock University students showed a similar response Wednesday when they learned the gruesome aspects of ancient embalming, including Egyptian techniques used to extract brains and organs from bodies before mummification.

Students bridged the millennia when Samuel Farmerie, education professor emeritus at Westminster College, discussed and demonstrated Egyptian mummification on a mock victim, Carly Goodine, an SRU exercise science major from Nova Scotia, Canada.

"I have a willing victim here, lay across the table," Farmerie told Goodine during a history class in Spotts World Culture Building. "This won't hurt for very long."

Carlis White, SRU associate professor of history, invited Farmerie to guest lecture during his "Egyptology" class. Farmerie serves as curator of the Westminster College Artifact Collection, which includes more than 150 Egyptian artifacts such as jewelry, papyrus documents and objects used for daily and sacred use. Farmerie displayed more than 20 artifacts Wednesday and projected pictures of mummies and mummified bodies in icy graves.

White said he invited Farmerie to campus to provide a high-impact lecture and complement his teaching on the ancient world, including Egyptian burial practices.

For his demonstration, Farmerie wielded a size-accurate replica of an instrument that embalmers used 3,000-4,000 years ago. Farmerie moved the thin device with a hook close to Goodine's nose, which in ancient times was inserted into the nostril.

"The very first thing is to remove the brain," he said. "The Egyptians felt that the brain was not of any particular value. So this tool was thrust up into the nostril. They pushed through a membrane and stared pulling the brain out through the nostril using this hook."

Next, the embalmer used a two-pronged device to push a cleansing fluid into the skull cavity and shook the head to remove leftover waste.

To remove internal organs, Egyptians used retractors to hold open an incision in the body while a second embalmer pulled organs out with a tweezer-like instrument.

"After the organs were removed, the embalming fluids like oil of juniper were used to rinse the inside of the body," Farmerie said.

Then they covered the body with hundreds of pounds of natron, a salt substance to desiccate the body, for between 35 to 70 days, depending upon how much was being paid for the service.

"After the appropriate time, the body is flushed again and then we get to the wrapping part," he said. "We wrap one arm, the other arm, each leg separately and then put them together, cross the arms and wrap the whole body with 700 yards of linens."

Goodine, who was not chosen ahead of time for the victim role, said she has been interested in Egyptology since she was a child. She said she was surprised by the culture's casual attitude toward the brain.

"The guest lecture was really fun, interesting and educational," she said. "It allowed us to see hands-on equipment and reinforced what we learn in the classroom. Lectures like this make the classroom environment more exciting."

Contrary to popular belief, Farmerie said mummification varied according to the wealth and status of the deceased. Techniques changed over time and with evolving religious beliefs.

"How you decorate the body, how you wrap the body, what kind of amulet you tied into the body all varied over time," he said. "But with Egyptian mummification, the basic purpose was to prepare a more perfect body for a more perfect afterlife."

While Farmerie focused on Egyptian practices, because he said that's what most people are interested in, SRU students learned about mummification from a broader perspective. Farmerie showed pictures of mummies from various cultures, most of which he said occurred naturally in freezing or anaerobic environments.

White said the Farmerie's demonstration and presentation of artifacts enhanced the educational experience of students in the course.

"The impact of seeing actual items as opposed to pictures, or written descriptions, conveys significantly greater information from which greater understanding can be achieved," White said. "And this will probably be the only time that students will ever see items that are as much as 4,000 years old without them being in a glass case."

White said he met Farmerie six years ago at a community festival in New Wilmington that featured the mummy housed at Westminster. Farmerie told White about the Westminster Artifact Collection.

"I subsequently arranged to borrow a few items to bring into classes I taught and then suggested that he come to discuss the mummy in the 'Egyptology' course I teach," White said.

Westminster lent SRU artifacts from its collection in 2012 so White could set up his "Writing as Ancient Technology" exhibit.

"The relationship that I have with Dr. Farmerie has been beneficial for more than just those that take Egyptology but several other students and people from surrounding communities came to see on campus two years ago," White said.

" I hope that we will be able to have Dr. Farmerie back for subsequent talks in my 'Egyptology' course and be able to construct other exhibits from the Westminster Artifact Collection and other collections in the area to engage students in a broader understanding of the past and diversity of cultures past and present."

Slippery Rock University is Pennsylvania's premier public residential university. Slippery Rock University provides students with a comprehensive learning experience that intentionally combines academic instruction with enhanced educational and learning opportunities that make a positive difference in their lives.