Victorians and Egyptomania – Part Two – By Sara Taylor

Sara is back with part two of her “Victorians and Egyptomania” blog post. This time, Sara focuses on mummies and mummification. Let’s “wrap” ourselves around this fascinating subject!

Sara Taylor

Mummy Mania!

Of the many artifacts that got shipped back to Europe, what often drew the most attention was mummies.

Mummies were not new or unheard of in Europe. During the medieval period it was believed that mummies were a source of bitumen (or natural asphalt), and merchants would scour ancient Egyptian graveyards and tombs for mummies to grind up and use for mummia, which was believed to have medicinal properties. At times merchants would even steal the bodies of executed criminals to turn into mummies, grind them up, and sell to unsuspecting clients!

In the 19th century it was not uncommon for members of the European aristocracy to purchase mummies as souvenirs of their travels. One French aristocrat and monk by the name of Abbot Ferdinand de Geramb wrote in 1833, “it would hardly be respectable to return from Egypt, to present oneself without a mummy in one hand and a crocodile in the other.”

From factanddetails.com

Mummification for the Ancient Egyptians was an essential part of their religion and they believed that the preservation of the mortal form was essential for living well in the afterlife.

Intentional mummification of the dead in Ancient Egypt dates back at least to the 2nd century BCE or about 2800 BCE. By the time Pharaoh Khufu was building the Great Pyramid at Giza, roughly around 2580 BCE, the Ancient Egyptians had begun to perfect the skills required to preserve a body.

The body was believed to be a vessel for the soul and for the soul to continue existing in the next world, the body needed to be preserved in this one. By preserving the body, the living could offer food and drink and prayers and the soul would continue to exist in the afterlife, enjoying all the things they had in life. If the body was damaged or destroyed, then the soul which would periodically come back to its body, would not be able to recognize it and would be lost. 

Mummification took about seventy days to complete. Special priests, acting as embalmers, would first remove the body’s organs through a small incision in the person’s side and wash and embalm them before placing them in separate jars. The heart was believed to be the center of feeling and reason so it would be carefully removed, washed, embalmed, and then placed back within the chest cavity. Often protective amulets and jewelry would be woven into the wrapping to assist in protecting the body as its spirit journeyed to the afterlife.

From cleopatraegypttours.com

Members of the royal family, the nobility, and priesthood would often be buried with valuable artifacts meant to offer the dead a life of comfort in the afterlife. Such as their favorite chair, clothing, jewelry, beds, statues of their gods for protection, and servants to work for them.

Usually, only the upper-classes, the nobles, priests, and royalty, could afford the kind of mummification that would best preserve the body, or what Herodotus referred to in his Histories as the near “perfect method.” 

Many in the lower end of ancient Egyptian society could probably only afford for the body’s intestines to be removed, injected with oil, and then covered in natron for seventy days before returning it to the family to be buried in a small shallow grave.  While not as gold-flecked as the pharaoh’s tombs, these small burials still tell Egyptologists much about what life was like for the average Egyptian.

Unwrapping a grim gift.

In 1834, a London surgeon by the name of Thomas Pettigrew is believed to have held one of the first “mummy unwrapping parties.” While Pettigrew was not the first to unwrap a mummy, he was the first to turn it into a show!

After paying a small fee, academics, affluent members of society, and so on would crowd into an operating theater to watch the mummy be unwrapped. Pettigrew became somewhat of an expert on mummification and was even recruited to reverse engineer the process by Alexander Hamilton, the 10th Duke of Hamilton, who wished to be mummified after his death. He even purchased an ancient Egyptian sarcophagus for the occasion to be buried in. And he was, when he died in 1852!

Examination of a Mummy by Paul Dominique Philippoteaux c 1891. (Photo: Public Domain/ArtMight)

Mummy unwrapping parties appealed to the Victorian’s fascination with the macabre and the scientific. They also didn’t always go according to plan. Stories of finding a mummy with its head filled with sand, a “princess” who was really a man, and having to pry the linen wrappings away with a crowbar, all filled the headlines.

But eventually public mummy unwrappings fell to the wayside. Many Victorians, like us today, felt that it was disrespectful of the dead, and as Egyptology became a more scientific field, Egyptologists felt that too much information was lost in the attempt to sell a cheap thrill. Though academic mummy unwrapping continued, the public moved on to the next fashionable trend.

A sad fact, though, is that information from these early studies of mummies and ancient Egypt, were used to the support racist ideology of the day and the results have had a long-lasting impact on the field of Egyptology.

One such debate was over whether the native ancient Egyptians were even capable of constructing marvels like the pyramids and the theory that the true builders were in fact Caucasian in origin and not African at all. Phrenology & Craniometry were popular pseudosciences that used measurements of the skull as well as any bump or dips to measure intelligence, and personality traits. Many early anthropologists, in particular George Samuel Morton, used ancient Egyptian skulls and mummies to “prove” his racist theories.

Even renowned Egyptologist Flinders Petrie believed that at one point in predynastic Egypt (6000 BCE-3100 BCE), a “Caucasoid race” had invaded Egypt and had taught the native Egyptians the methods to construct these monuments.

While these beliefs no longer exist in mainstream archaeology and Egyptology today, the damage still lingers in the field, and are present in modern fringe archaeological theories, such as ancient aliens.

To learn more about mummification and the study of mummies, click here.

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