Long used as medicine, Egyptian mummies became, during the 18th and 19th centuries, an object of morbid curiosity and, later, an object of study.
Study of a mummy
Doctor Fouquet examines the undressed mummy of the priestess of Amun Ta Uza Re, found in the cache of Deir el-Bahari, together with Gaston Maspero and several members of the Franco-Egyptian Society. The event takes place under the watchful eyes of some ladies and the Marquis de Reversaux, sitting at the foot of the improvised stretcher. Oil by Paul Dominique Philippoteaux. 1891.
The pyramids of Giza
The monumental tombs erected by Cheops, Khafre and Mycerinus, pharaohs of the IV dynasty, on the Gizeh plain, are the emblematic image of Egypt. However, the mummies of their owners were not found inside.
Mummy about to be photographed
An archaeologist prepares the photograph of a mummy in a museum. Colored engraving. XIX century.
Mummies for sale
The morbid European fascination with Egyptian mummies made many visitors willing to take one home as a souvenir. The French aristocrat Ferdinand de Geramb wrote in 1833: “It would hardly be respectable, returning from Egypt, to present oneself without a mummy in one hand and a crocodile in the other.” Mummy seller. Photograph taken around 1877.
The mummies, stars of the museums
Any great European archaeological museum worth its salt should have a good collection of mummies. The one in the image –belonging to a woman between 20 and 35 years old who lived during the Third Intermediate Period– is preserved in the National Archaeological Museum of Madrid and is one of the three Egyptian mummies that underwent a CT scan in 2016. Both it and the cartonnage that covers it –which do not correspond to this mummy– were acquired by Eduard Toda, the Spanish consul in Cairo between 1884 and 1886.
The first mummy studied
This drawing recreates the mummy studied by Benoît de Maillet, in September 1698, before a group of French travellers. Description of Egypt. Work edited by Jean-Baptiste Le Mascrier, in 1735.
Ritual of the opening of the mouth
Some priests prepare two mummified bodies in their coffins for this funerary ritual, which will restore their senses for their life in the Hereafter. National Archaeological Museum, Florence.
Jar of ‘mumia’
In 1657, the Physical Dictionary defined mumia as follows: «Mumia, a thing like the resin that is sold in drugstores; some claim that it is mined from ancient tombs.’ Jar in the Museum of Cultural History in Heidelberg.
The golden mummies of Bahariya
In this Egyptian oasis, 400 kilometers from Cairo, a cemetery was discovered in 1996 with the largest concentration of intact mummies from ancient Egypt, almost all dating from the Greco-Roman period. The place received the name of Valley of the Golden Mummies, because most of them were dressed in cardboard and masks covered with fine layers of gold on stucco. The one in the image is one of the 43 mummies found in tomb 54 of Bahariya, which contained the most interesting mummies in the necropolis.
The mummy hideout
The mummies discovered in the hiding place or cachette of Deir el-Bahari are taken to the ship that will take them to Cairo. Recorded. XIX century.
The Merenre King
Copper statue of Pharaoh Merenre I, of the 6th dynasty, whose possible mummy was discovered in his pyramid in 1880. Egyptian Museum, Cairo.
This anonymous photo shows the scientific study of a mummy, which has already been completely undressed, at some point in the 19th century. It was at the end of this century, in 1892, when scientists began to be aware of the information that could be obtained from a mummy. It was the birth of modern paleopathology.
Over the years, Thomas Pettigrew unwrapped dozens of mummies. He was the first to observe that mummification techniques have varied throughout the history of Egypt. Portrait by Ann W. Skelton. 1839.
Mummies in the museum
The great European museums began to amass important collections of Egyptian art during the 18th and 19th centuries. The oldest Egyptian museum is the one in Turin, opened in 1824. This oil shows one of its rooms in 1881, with several mummies in glass cases.
Tourists in Egypt
By 1870, Egypt had become a popular winter vacation destination for Europeans, especially the British. In the image, a group of 19th-century tourists riding camels in front of the Giza sphinx. 1880s.
Egyptian mummies have always been strangely fascinating, like the mummy of Tutankhamun, whose toothy expression became visible after losing the protective dignity of his bandages, sarcophagi and coffins, or like the overwhelming number (hundreds of thousands) of embalmed animals that were buried in the Greco-Roman catacombs. To be able to look into the face of someone who died more than three thousand years ago, and who somehow left their mark on history, produces a peculiarly morbid pleasure, just like looking at an elaborately bandaged cat mummy and imagining that of mice. that he could have come to hunt before being sacrificed and offered to Bastet, the goddess whose characteristics he embodied. Given their abundance and paradoxical appeal, mummies became one of the favorite souvenirs that nineteenth-century travelers and tourists took home, before researchers discovered the great amount of information that can be obtained from their study.
In fact, before becoming a souvenir for collectors, mummies were essential medicine for many centuries in all European apothecaries worth their salt. It all started because the Greek doctors Dioscorides and Galen recommended in their treatises an almost miraculous product that served to cure a host of different types of conditions: from abscesses to rashes, through fractures, epilepsy or vertigo, everything was cured by the mumia, the name that the Persians gave to the product that we know today as “bitumen”.
Due to its widespread demand, over the centuries the natural outcrops of mumia eventually dried up, so, reluctant to let the business of a product that brought them huge profits die – the prices that mumia reached were very high – the Diligent Eastern merchants scrambled madly for other sources of raw materials. And they found it in the embalmed bodies that had been produced on the banks of the Nile for three thousand years. When they dried, the resins, oils and aromatic products with which the corpses were covered –and even flooded– during mummification not only had the same consistency and color as the original mumia, but a more fragrant and pleasant smell. So it was that something the ancient Egyptians called sah ended up being named after a strange medicinal product from Persia.
FIRST STUDIES OF MUMMIES
The first “analysis” of a mummy took place in 1698, when Benoît de Maillet, the French consul in Cairo, uncovered one and took note of some of the found objects. But the first serious study of a mummy was done by a German apothecary named Christian Hertzog, who in 1718 unwrapped one and took notes of the entire process, which he later published. His example was followed in London in 1792 by his compatriot Johann Friedrich Blumenbach; although it would not be until the 19th century that interest in mummies began to grow at all levels of society. In 1825, the physician Augustus Bozzi Granville published the results of his study of a mummy. In 1828, historian William Osburn analyzed another with the help of a team of chemists and anatomists. Both followed the path opened by Giovanni Battista Belzoni who, as a complement to his exhibition of the reliefs from the tomb of Seti I -which he had discovered in 1817-, in 1821 undressed a mummy before a group of doctors, for which he had the help of his friend Thomas Pettigrew, who was a surgeon. It was this man who, shortly after, would turn the undressing of mummies into a public spectacle.
Pettigrew – eventually nicknamed “Mummy” Pettigrew – attended the opening of three mummies with Belzoni, but his first solo attempt was privately with a mummy he got at auction. Having thus become as expert as anyone else – something to which his knowledge of anatomy undoubtedly contributed – he decided to organize a series of talks on the subject. The main course of his conference was served for dessert in the form of a mummy unwrapped, of which, as we can see, it was not difficult to obtain copies. In total, he gave a dozen talks in 1833 to the astonished Londoners who, between disgusted and seduced, from the stalls saw the drowsy face of an ancient Egyptian emerge. Luckily, since he was a scientist after all, Pettigrew took notes on the details of the unwrapping and with this remarkable documentary background he wrote the first scientific treatise on the subject: History of the Egyptian mummies and a report on the cult and embalming of animals sacred; with mentions on the funerary ceremonies of different nations, and observations on the mummies of the Canary Islands, the ancient Peruvians, the Burmese priests, etc., published a year after his talks. Pettigrew wanted to create a science of mummies, and there is no doubt that his example spread: that same year, John Davison unwrapped two mummies at the Royal Institution and then published a detailed report, something that had begun to become essential.
THE LONG ROAD TO SCIENCE
The flame had caught and, following Pettigrew’s success, unblinding a mummy became the star game of many a party among the well-to-do in London. Even invitation cards were printed to the event, such as the one that took place on Monday, June 10, 1850, at 144 Piccadilly, at half past two, at Lord Londesborough’s house, which had Samuel Birch as “officiant”, Curator of the British Museum. Birch became Pettigrew’s successor, and over the next few years he studied numerous mummies, such as those brought back by the Prince of Wales from a trip to Egypt in 1868. But in his publications, Birch paid more attention to coffins and inscriptions than to caskets. mummified bodies.
A first royal mummy cache of the New Kingdom (TT320) was discovered at Deir el-Bahari in 1880, followed in 1898 by the tomb of Amnehotep II (KV35) in the Valley of the Kings, also converted into a royal mummy cache. The treatment received by the mummies of characters such as Thutmosis III or Ramses II was, without a doubt, respectful according to the canons of the time; but the truth is that on the part of the Egyptologists, except for unwrapping them to find objects between their bandages, little else was done. Fortunately, at the beginning of the 20th century Grafton Elliot Smith, who worked as an anatomist at the Cairo School of Medicine, studied and photographed the royal mummies, and years later he published a book that is still used as a reference: Catalog of the Royal Mummies in the Museum of Cairo (1912). His osteometric studies led him to realize that it was more than likely that the labels and names written on the bandages of several of the mummies were wrong. Apparently, the priests of the 21st dynasty who hid the royal mummies to save them from more than likely looting did not pay enough attention to the task.
The study of mummies was about to be turned upside down. Although in 1903 Mark Twain still joked that they were perfect for heating the boilers of Egyptian train locomotives, in 1908 Margaret Murray organized a multidisciplinary group in Manchester to scientifically study two groups of mummies. The way was finally open for the mummies to be considered for what they are: important sources of historical information; but slowly, because even in 1900 a mummified arm found in the tomb of Pharaoh Djer ended up in the garbage after being photographed.