Grain mummies are made from Nile mud and grains such as wheat or barley, roughly shaped like a mummified human, and wrapped with linen bandages—hence the name “mummy.” Grain mummies serve as sacred images of the god Osiris during his festival. While this one is plain, other grain mummies wear a shroud or have a small wax mask in the image of Osiris wearing a crown, tiny fists holding the crook and flail (representing kingship), or even an erect phallus.
Because the NCMA’s grain mummy came in a falcon-headed coffin and lacks attributes that link it to symbolic images of Osiris, it was initially mistaken for a falcon mummy—which would also be wrapped in linen and of similar size and appearance.
Bird mummies have been studied more than grain mummies in recent decades. They tend to have fancier wrappings or facial features indicated in ink or appliqués. Nowadays, medical technologies reveal what lies beneath the wrappings, especially with nondescript bundles. X-rays of our mummy show a speckled pattern instead of bones, but that doesn’t mean it is a fake.
Priests began preparing grain mummies on the twelfth day of the month of Khoiak (mid-October to mid-November), mixing mud, grain seeds, and water from the flood into two gold molds shaped like a mummified being. By the twenty-first of Khoiak, grains had sprouted, and the two halves were tied together and dried, to be wrapped the next day.
Bird mummies, like those of humans and other animals, underwent a thirty-day drying process before being wrapped. Several mummification techniques existed. The most common for votive bird mummies appears to be “desiccation and anointment.” Organs were not always removed, but the birds were dried with natron (a naturally occurring drying agent), dipped in hot resin for preservation, and finally wrapped.
Grains were important to the Egyptians’ diet. Wheat was used to make bread, while barley was a main ingredient in the brewing of beer. These grains also played a major role in the economy. For land owners grain was wealth, and the associated commodities—bread and beer—served as payment for laborers and could be exchanged for other goods. Even priests were remunerated with bread and beer; when these were used as offerings to the dead, they were not left in tombs to rot. Grains also had symbolic value in funerary religion and were associated with the annual agricultural cycle as well as with Osiris—in both cases symbolizing life, death, and rebirth.
Gift of the James G. Hanes Memorial Fund