It has been said that there are only two certainties in life – death and taxes. With regard the latter it is possible to avoid or evade. With regards the former evasion or avoidance are not options. Sooner or later we’re all going to die.
So, what has occupied the mind of humankind since the long ago age when they crawled out of the primordial swamp and stood upright on two legs is what comes next? Is there an undiscovered country “from whose bourn,” to quote Shakespeare, “no traveller returns?” Is there an afterlife?
Well in a glass case located amongst the mummies in the Egyptian section of the British Museum you will find the remains of someone who very much believed that there was an afterlife. Furthermore, he is one of the most visited exhibits in the British Museum Collection.
The dried out cadaver was discovered in Egypt in 1900 but those who look upon him are looking at the remains of a man who walked the sands of Egypt some 3000 years before the birth of Christ.
We don’t know exactly who he was but, on account of his reddish- blond hair – which, although 5000 years old, has been almost perfectly preserved – he has been given the unofficial nickname of Ginger.
Ginger is curled up in the foetal position – this is symbolic. He is about to be reborn and about to enter the next life, and surrounding him are various objects – pots and bowls and a stone vase. These were not discovered at the same time as Ginger but they do date back to the same period and have been placed with him in the glass case to give an impression of how his grave pit would have looked. These vessels would have contained personal possessions, such as beads and a knife, as well as food and drink, all sorts of things to sustain him in the afterlife.
He is an excellent example of how bodies were preserved in Ancient Egypt in the days before mummification, an era known as the Predynastic Age. They were placed in shallow graves and then covered with dry sand. It was important for bodies to be preserved so that they could pass through into the next life.
The Ancient Egyptians believed that the body needed to survive in a recognisable form because if it decayed the spirit, which survived death, also perished. The spirit, they believed, would ascend to the heavens, and having passed the judgement of the gods, it would be transformed into a divine being, called an akhu, and it would live in a realm decorated with features similar to those it had had on earth and where it would sample pleasures similar to the ones it had enjoyed in its mortal form.
But how has Ginger’s body been preserved for so long – over 5000 years?
Well, the secret lies in the sand itself.
Sand dries out the moisture from the body. Whenever an organic thing dies, be it an animal, plant or person, it immediately starts to decompose. Bacteria get inside, breed in the moisture and begin eating away at the body, breaking it down.
But, because Ginger was placed in direct contact with the sand, all of the moisture was drawn out, and, since the human body is made up of 75% water, there was nothing for the bacteria to live on.
So, even though Ginger looks a little leathery, he is in remarkable shape for someone who has celebrated his 5000th birthday.