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Unrolling Egypt’s ancient dead

By Katherine Aitchison, on 4 April 2012

“I have to start with a warning. There will be pictures of mummies.”

Apparently the last speaker in the Petrie Museum’s programme of events for this term, John Johnston (UCL Institute of Archaeology), had been told that he was best off warning his audiences about what they were about to see. Although what people expect to see at a talk entitled “Unrolling Egypt’s Ancient Dead,” I’m not quite sure.

In case (like me) you’re unaware of “mummy unrolling”, let me explain. The term refers to a popular fad in the 19th century in which wealthy members of society would purchase an Egyptian mummy and have a grand unveiling in which they opened the bandages to see what was underneath.

This was an integral part of the “Egyptomania” that gripped Britain from around 1798 to the 1900s. If this idea isn’t disturbing enough for you, we also heard tales of French and English monarchs who took potions of mummy or used mummy as an ingredient in lotion to make them ‘pharaoh-like’.

And the most unsettling tale? How about the one about a British paint company that in 1968 regretfully announced that they would no longer be producing a shade of brown paint because it had run out of the key ingredient – powdered mummy.

The craze for unrolling mummies was started by Giovanni Belzoni, who put on a famous display at Bullock’s Museum in London featuring all things Egyptian and had as a centrepiece the unrolling of a mummy that Belzoni had acquired while in Africa.

This unrolling was performed by Thomas Pettigrew, a surgeon who went on to become a renowned mummy specialist and performed many such unrollings throughout Britain.

Rather than occurring in universities as research or teaching displays, many of these events took place in country manors where the well-to-do would gather together for a few drinks and a peak beneath the bandages of some long-dead Egyptian dignitary.

The craze even crossed the Atlantic, thanks to one George Robins Gliddon whose career came to an abrupt end at the unveiling of the “Egyptian princess” who, when she was revealed in all her glory, turned out to be more of a prince (the royal ties are doubtful but you know what I mean).

At the turn of the century, there was a significant change in opinion. The unrolling of a mummy at Manchester University in 1908 attracted criticism and questions over whether the practice was really beneficial to science or whether it was simply a kind of “freakshow attraction”.

This event signalled the end of mummy unrolling with only a few carried out in the following years. Johnston suggests that this is perhaps due to an increase in horror stories featuring mummies from the likes of Arthur Conan-Doyle and Bram Stoker.

Thanks to these fictional tales, the reality of seeing a (probably rather disappointing) desiccated corpse likely lost some of the thrill.

It’s not that we’ve lost our fascination with what’s underneath a mummy’s bandages, it’s just that today, we have no need to physically unroll mummies; we can see beneath their bandages digitally.

Many museums have large Egyptian displays that nearly always feature at least one mummy, wrapped or otherwise, so they’re clearly still of great interest. Perhaps the mummy unrolling craze never really went away, it’s just that today it’s done more scientifically and with greater respect for the person who died.

Whatever the truth about mummy unrolling today, the sad fact remains that countless priceless examples of Egyptian burial practices have been lost to the voyeurism of the Victorian gentry.

Few of these unrollings were written up allowing for scientific inquiry, and the mummies themselves were often discarded after the unveiling or broken up and distributed among the spectators. It’s a sad note to end on but, as always with Petrie Museum events, certainly food for thought.

Katherine Aitchison is a Second year PhD student at the UCL Institute of Child Health.

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