Ancient History & Civilisation



Egyptian mummies and tomb finds

To highlight the unique position of Pompeii in terms of the way that popular culture has driven research on human remains, a comparison can be made with ancient Egyptian tomb finds. This material provides the closest parallels to Pompeii in terms of remarkable preservation and a long tradition of popular culture, especially evident in film and literature. But the similarity ends with the way in which the material has been dealt with in relation to research and general scientific investigation. Unlike the case in Pompeii, popular culture has not impeded the quality of scientific studies of mummies. In fact, since scientific analysis of Egyptian mummies commenced, it has always been cutting edge and has provided a benchmark for all studies of ancient human remains.

Mummies: early contact with the Western world

Mummies entered the west as a result of their perceived medicinal qualities. The word mummy is derived from the Persian word mûm, later mûmiyá, which has variously been translated as pitch or bitumen. The belief that this substance possessed medicinal qualities can be traced as far back as the Classical era. Pliny the Elder, for example, recommended the use of pitch or bitumen for gout, leprosy, toothaches and dysentery. Medieval apothecaries expanded the definition, possibly as a result of a mistranslation, to include ‘pitch’ obtained from Egyptian mummies. The ‘pitch’ observed on mummies actually was a by-product of the resins used in the embalming process. Over time, actual human tissue from mummies was ground up and sold as a drug. It was so popular that demand outstripped the supply of available ancient mummies. This resulted in the looting of graves of comparatively recent Egyptians, whose bodies were oven dried, disarticulated and sold as mumia.1

Complete mummies were transported to Europe as collectors ’ items from the seventeenth century. Popular belief has it that the first such mummy to arrive in England was the property of Nell Gwynn, the mistress of Charles II. This mummy is now allegedly housed in the British Museum. The first reliably documented case of a mummy finding its way into the British Museum collection, however, was one that was transported from Egypt as a curiosity in 1722 by a Mr William Lethieullier.2

The 1798 campaign to Egypt, led by Napoleon Bonaparte on behalf of the French Republic, is generally considered to have created the impetus for mummy studies in the European world. In addition to soldiers, Napoleon included 167 scholars in his entourage. He founded a Commission of Science and Art and an Egyptian Institute to guide the documentation of the monuments, technology, geography, flora and fauna of the country. The Description de lÉgypte, the Commission’s ten-folio-volume illustrated account of the country, played a major role in the development of Egyptomania. This was manifested in the production of arts, crafts and a general fascination with Egyptian culture, which, in turn, promoted the growth of Egyptian collections in major museums, such as the British Museum. Associated with this was an increase in tourism to the area. And with tourism came the need to return home with an authentic piece of ancient Egypt to amuse and delight one’s friends.3

Mummies were possibly the most sought after trophies. It was practically de rigueur for visitors to Egypt in the early nineteenth century to souvenir a portion of mummy, or even better, a complete mummy to display in a prominent place as a conversation piece. Unfortunately, for pilferers, the export of mummies from Egypt was beset with problems. One man, for example, was nearly arrested for murder when a mummy was found in his possession on a train as he tried to transport it across Europe. Sometimes modern bodies were mistaken for those of Ancient Egyptians as in a case reported by Flinders Petrie, when a tourist discovered that they had, in fact, souvenired the body of an English engineer who had perished in Egypt. Pettigrew documented the case of an Egyptian who made his living by manufacturing mummies for gullible buyers.4

As with house re-excavation in Pompeii, the mummy industry was associated with the seeding of areas with mummies, to ensure that no really important tourist went home disappointed. As in Pompeii, ‘special excavations’ were arranged for the benefit of noble visitors. A good example was the 1869 visit of the Prince of Wales (later Edward VII), who was treated to the unearthing of about 30 mummies in a tomb in Western Thebes of the 25th and 26th dynasties. The sarcophagi and mummies were transported to England and dispersed in various collections. It was later discovered that these bodies had been brought together from different sources and placed in a previously excavated tomb that had only yielded one sarcophagus in the 1830s. A further parallel can be drawn with Pompeii in that this type of fakery was continued, but on a lesser scale for mass tourism by people like Thomas Cook.5

The first real divergence from Pompeii was in the way bodies were treated once they arrived in the European world. For the most part, human remains in Pompeii were not considered an essential souvenir, though parts of skeletons certainly were collected (see Chapter 5). Mummies did not just serve as conversation pieces. Many formed the basis of theatrical after-dinner amusements. Mummy unwrapping became a popular form of Victorian parlour entertainment. A number of unwrappings were performed to a feepaying audience as a cynical, money-making exercise.

One of the earliest unwrappings was in 1698 when Louis XIV ’s consul in Cairo performed the honours for a group of French tourists. He recorded some of the amulets that he found but neglected to discuss any other finds or make any observations about the mummy itself. This was common practice during the ensuing centuries, though there were some exceptions. In 1718, for example, an apothecary by the name of Herzog unwrapped a mummy and published a number of his observations. He also ground the mummy up and sold the powder as a novel way of financing this research. The famous physical anthropologist and physician Blumenbach unwrapped a number of mummies in England during the 1790s. His work involved mummies from both private and public collections. One of his key discoveries was that a substantial number of these mummies were fakes. The fakery was not only modern. Animals, single bones or rags bound up to give the appearance of mummi

ed children, were occasionally used to construct mummies in antiquity.

The first investigation that could really be described as scientific was undertaken in 1828 on the so-called ‘Leeds Mummy’. Chemical analysis was attempted and, though there were no conclusive results, it marked a shift in attitude and provided a basis for a more scientific approach to future mummy unwrappings. Belzoni famously unwrapped some mummies for the public with the assistance of one Thomas Pettigrew. Pettigrew then moved on to unwrap mummies on his own. To develop his professional skills, Pettigrew purchased a few mummies that he unwrapped in private where he could take notes about his observations and conclusions. He then commenced public unwrapping to audiences who paid for the privilege of viewing these spectacles. The first of these took place in the lecture theatre of Charing Cross Hospital in 1833. Amongst the audience were antiquarians, Egyptologists, artists, peers, royalty, diplomats, physicians, army officers and anyone from the great unwashed who could afford the admission price. These were sell-out events, with people being turned away at the door. These ethically questionable exercises, nonetheless, did yield valuable information about the various types of mummies and methods of mummification. In 1834, Pettigrew published his History of Egyptian Mummies, one of the first academic publications on the subject.6

Mummies for fun and profit

Another point of divergence with Pompeii is the industry that developed around mummies. While some unscrupulous people collected human remains from Pompeii as souvenirs, they did not appear to be considered of any value outside a private context. The situation was quite different in Egypt where the mummy trade formed part of the nineteenth century economy. The precedent for the mummy industry was its popularity as a drug and the use of mummy for medicinal purposes continued into the nineteenth century. A huge number of mummies found their way to Europe to satisfy the demand, despite the fact that this trade was not sanctioned by the Egyptian authorities.

Apart from the above-mentioned mummies that were exported for unwrappings, they were also used for various, and sometimes unexpected, purposes. They were, for example, used in the manufacture of the artist’s oil paint known as Mummy Brown. It has been claimed that cat mummies were used as ballast in ships and then when they reached their European destination they served as fertilizer until the public sensibility created enough pressure to stop this trade. They were also traded as curios and most museums that were in existence in the nineteenth century would have housed at least one mummy, or portions of mummies, in their collection. There is an apocryphal story of the use of mummy wrappings for the manufacture of the brown paper used by butchers and grocers in North America. The paper was ostensibly used for wrapping produce until the industry was put to a halt by a cholera outbreak that was thought to have originated in the mummification by-product.

The mummy industry was not merely the realm of insensitive Europeans. In Egypt, mummies served as firewood as the population had little other fossil fuel at its disposal. Similarly, mummified arms and legs were claimed to make excellent torches. Mark Twain famously made the spurious suggestion that they were also burnt to power locomotive engines.7

Mummies for science and entertainment

Amazingly, large numbers of mummies survived the nineteenth-century onslaught and subsequently could be employed to better understand the people of ancient Egypt.

As mentioned above, Napoleon ’s campaign inspired interest in ancient mummies, which led to organized expeditions to excavate and loot the ancient contents of tombs. This activity continued into the twentieth century.

Politics obviously played an important role in the growth of the excavation and plundering of tombs. When Mohammed Ali came to power as the ruler of Egypt at the beginning of the nineteenth century, he encouraged a large European presence in his country, as he was anxious to gain access to Western technology and trade. He also was very enthusiastic about improved diplomatic ties with Europe. A number of diplomats took the opportunity to amass antiquities for personal, as well as national, gain. Two of the major protagonists in this area were Giovanni Battista Belzoni, who worked for the British representative Henry Salt and the Consul General for France, Bernardino Drovetti.

Belzoni is the better known of these two characters, partly because he was more careful in his work and partly because of his remarkable history. He started his career as a strongman in a circus. He then trained as an hydraulic engineer and arrived in Egypt in 1816 to sell the new ruler of the country an irrigation pump. The demonstration of the pump was far from successful and Belzoni was forced to make an abrupt career change. His skills in moving large objects proved extremely valuable for his new role as excavator and tomb robber. He eventually returned to England with a large collection of mummies, some of which were used for very successful public mummy unrollings.8

Like Pompeii and other Vesuvian sites, the early history of Egyptian tomb excavation was marked by its similarity to a mining operation. The initial excavations primarily served to line the coffers of the people who excavated and commissioned such work. There were some notable exceptions and a more rigorous approach began to prevail by the middle of the nineteenth century.

In the early years of the twentieth century, American-funded expeditions were carried out under the aegis of the Egyptian Antiquities Service. These expeditions were a forerunner to international expeditions to Egypt, which became fairly common as the century progressed. Projects were undertaken by American and European institutions as well as independent wealthy individuals who were able to obtain permits. Flinders Petrie, for example, led a number of expeditions both for the English-based Egypt Exploration Fund and the British School of Archaeology in Egypt. Petrie is generally credited as the founder of scientific archaeology in Egypt. He was responsible for the excavation of numerous tomb sites, some of which yielded important information in establishing the history of mummification. Other archaeologists, like John Garstang, who worked in the ensuing decades could be accused of expending far less effort on documentation and analysis of the human remains than the grave goods.

Straight-out tomb robbing still continued throughout the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries despite the fact that it was illegal. Objects obtained from tombs would always find buyers and major institutions, like the British Museum, were amongst the worst culprits when it came to making the job of the tomb robber worthwhile.

Perhaps the single find that most influenced the popular imagination in the twentieth century was the discovery of the tomb of Tutankhamun in the Valley of the Kings by Howard Carter in 1922. As the first intact royal burial to be exposed, it provided important information about the range of objects that accompanied a royal person to their grave. Also, although the young king was only a minor player in Egyptian history, the discovery of his tomb had an enormous impact on popular culture, influencing clothing, furniture, cinema and even confectionary design, as well as inspiring music.9

The mummy in popular culture

From the time of Napoleon ’s expedition, artefacts found in Egyptian-tomb contexts inspired the arts and the design of objects used in daily life. As already discussed, this was also the case with finds from the sites destroyed by Mt Vesuvius. Well-preserved human remains have continuously exercised influenceinall mediaassociatedwithpopular culture. As with Pompeii, the macabre finds of mummies spawned numerous novels, and later, films. If anything, mummy finds in Egypt exerted greater influence on popular culture than the bodies of the victims from Pompeii. In film alone, mummies provided the inspiration for around 50 productions between 1909 and 2001.10

The mummy in literature – Mr Gautier again

Apart from the occasional incidental appearance of mummies in Tudor literature, such as Shakespeare’s Macbeth and Othello, the mummy doesn’t appear as a key character in novels until the nineteenth century.11 Since then, there has been a plethora of mummy literature.12

Most notable, for the purposes of this study, is the presence of Theophile Gautier’s works in the mummy literature. Gautier was one of the pioneers of this genre. He produced two works on Egyptian mummies, The Romance of a Mummy in 1857 and a short story,The Mummys Foot, in 1863.13The latter obliquely refers to the practice of collecting portions of mummies as souvenirs. Like Arria Marcella, this story involves a hero with a disconcerting tendency to form attachments with portions of older, long-dead women.

The Mummys Foot has the most obvious parallels with Arria Marcella. The story is fabulous enough to warrant gratuitous retelling: the tale opens with the protagonist idly entering a curio shop in Paris. His fancy is taken by a beautiful foot, which at first he mistakes for a fragment of a bronze statue. To his surprise, the foot is made of flesh. It transpires that it is, in fact, a portion of a mummy. And not just any mummy; it is an extremity of the Princess Hermonthis. Despite the fact that the foot is human, the hero desires to use it as a paperweight. The wizened old shopkeeper considers that a novel application, which would certainly have surprised the Princess’s father, the Pharaoh.

Undeterred, our hero purchases the foot and takes it home wrapped in a piece of old damask. He is uncommonly delighted with his purchase and immediately puts it to use, placing it on a pile of papers. When he retires that night, he falls into a deep slumber and dreams that he is in his room. Everything appears normal until he notices his paperweight, which has started moving about and hopping amongst his papers. He is somewhat disturbed by this as he prefers ‘sedentary paperweights’.14

The curtains then begin to move and he hears a sound like a person hopping around on one foot. This is followed by the appearance of the singlefooted Princess Hermonthis herself. She is unable to catch her bounding loose foot until she speaks with it. The foot somehow manages to explain to her that it has been bought and no longer belongs to her unless she can repay the price of purchase. Our hero gallantly offers the princess her foot as he has no desire to cripple such a lovely individual. She is then able to reunite her severed foot to her leg. To thank our unnamed hero, she offers to present him to her father, as she is certain that he will be pleased that her foot has been restored. She also replaces his missing paperweight with a

gure of Isis that she wears around her neck.

They are transported to a vast chamber in a granite mountainside. There he sees a whole collection of dessicated mummies – kings, their retinues and their mummified animals – returned to life. They all appear to be delighted that the princess is again intact. The Pharaoh asks our hero to name his reward. He asks for permission to marry the princess as it strikes him that it would be appropriate to replace her ‘foot with her hand’.15

Taken aback by this request, the old Pharaoh inquires about his age and provenance. He replies that he is 27 years old. The assembled masses are shocked that one so young could consider matrimony with a woman who is 30 centuries his senior. The Pharaoh informs him that the age discrepancy is just too great to allow the marriage even to be considered. Even a two-thousandyear-old would be a trifle on the young side for such a venerable individual. The ancient Egyptian bemoans the fact that youngsters like him appear to be unable to preserve themselves and he really thinks that his daughter should have a husband who has the capacity to last over the millennia. Our hero awakens and finds himself back in his own apartment but the mummy’s foot is no longer there. It has been replaced by a green clay statue of Isis.

What separates Egyptian popular culture from that of Pompeii is that it really did not have a significant impact on research output. Popularizing ancient Egypt obviously increased interest in tomb sites and the collection of antiquities, including mummified remains. This would have had an impact on funding of expeditions but it did not determine the direction of research. It is in stark contrast with the considerable and continued influence of popular literature, especially The Last Days of Pompeii, on the interpretation of human skeletal finds from Campania.

Egyptian mummies and science

Initial anthropological studies on Egyptian remains were limited to mummy unwrapping and craniometric studies. The latter were the most common analyses performed on skeletal material in the nineteenth century and were undertaken to establish so-called racial types (Chapter 3). One of the key nineteenth-century craniometric studies Morton. Phrenological studies were also research was duly discredited. It is notable that this type of work did not take advantage of the research possibilities provided by preserved soft tissue. This was set to change. The emphasis for future work would shift from typology to more medically oriented research.16

A fortuitous sequence of linked events provided the impetus for the first rigorous and systematic examinations of Egyptian mummies. Government on Egyptian material was by

carried out until this type of reaction to public outrage over the construction of the first Aswan Dam in 1902 was a catalyst for this work. When the reservoir behind the dam was filled in 1903, the First Cataract on the Nile and Philae were lost and much of the valley of the Nile was flooded. Many monuments, burials and other artefacts were destroyed both as a direct result of the flooding and because of the ensuing seepage. There was considerable public resentment for these losses. This was exacerbated by a proposal from the Egyptian government to increase the height of the dam by a further seven metres in 1907, as it would result in massive flooding of a considerable area. To stave off criticism about the desecration of Egypt’s cultural heritage, the government made the politically sensible decision to commission a systematic survey of the region prior to the planned deluge. Under this scheme, all monuments were to be documented. Burials were to be excavated and their contents removed before areas were submerged. In addition, all burials were to be recorded in detail, photographed and their contents subjected to analysis.17

Another key factor that determined the direction of Egyptian mummy research was the combination of British dominance and involvement in the foundation of the English-language Government School of Medicine in Cairo. It also established the agenda for mummy research, which to this day is mostly focused on palaeopathology. This medical institution was able to provide both the expertise and the resources to conduct mummy research. Three of the professors at this school exerted a profound influence on the study of mummies in the twentieth century. They were Grafton Elliot Smith in anatomy, Alfred Lucas in chemistry and Armand Ruffer in bacteriology. Elliot Smith only spent seven years in Egypt but continued his research when he moved to England. Ruffer established techniques for the examination of mummified soft tissues for evidence of disease, especially at a microscopic level. Some of his techniques, including that for the rehydration of desiccated soft tissue, are still in use. Among other things, Lucas worked on the chemical analysis of finds from Tutankhamun’s tomb and performed experiments to determine the methods used in mummification.18

When the tomb of Tuthmosis IV was discovered in 1903, the mummy of the ruler was subjected to a public unwrapping for the benefit of the upper echelons of Cairo. Unfortunately, this was more an entertainment than a scientific exercise and yielded little useful information. Elliot Smith later was able to conduct a more rigorous study of this mummy, including the use of x-ray analysis to determine age-at-death.

The discovery of rays that were to become the basis of the new method of visualizing internal structures through x-ray technology in 1895, by Roentgen, a German physicist, took mummy research in a new direction. Early mummy investigations involved unwrapping the bandages and ultimately compromising the fabric of the mummy. This new technique had the huge advantage of being non-destructive. This meant that signs of trauma and disease could be recognized without performing an autopsy. It should be noted that the early use of x-rays was at least as important for the discernment of associated artefacts, such as amulets and jewellery, as for the understanding of the lives and deaths of the mummies.

A gentleman by the name of Koenig was responsible for performing the first x-ray investigations of human and animal mummies in Frankfurt in 1896. Flinders Petrie was responsible for the next x-ray of a human mummy, which was undertaken in 1897 and published in the following year. When Elliot Smith undertook to x-ray the mummy of Tuthmosis IV, the only x-ray machine in Cairo at that time was in the nursing home. Elliot Smith and Howard Carter had to transport the deceased pharaoh to this destination, stretched across their laps, in a taxi. Elliot Smith followed this study with an examination of the royal mummies from Deir el-Bahri and the tomb of Amenophis, as well as numerous other mummified individuals.19 By the 1920s and 1930s, x-raying was an established technique for mummy research.20

The research that resulted from the raising of the Aswan Dam required more staff than the Government Medical School could provide and additional English scholars were employed. The two most notable of these were Frederic Wood Jones and W.R. Dawson. Douglas Derry succeeded Elliot Smith as professor of anatomy and was responsible for the examination of the body of Tutankhamun. Large numbers of mummies were subjected to autopsy in the first quarter of the twentieth century.

Outside of Egypt, work was also taking place on mummies in museum collections, most notably in Manchester. In 1908, Margaret Murray, the curator of the Manchester Museum, instigated a multidisciplinary study of two mummies from the same tomb. She worked with a physician, three chemists and two textile experts. This was the precursor of the type of approach that would dominate research in the latter part of the twentieth century.21

This period of intense activity was short lived and mummy studies dwindled for some decades before the next wave of research commenced. There are a number of reasons for this decline. Major events, such as the Depression, World War II and the Middle East conflict, clearly played a large role but other factors also had an impact on mummy studies. Political and economic changes during World War II affected the way excavations were funded and organized, which led to preference being given to non-funerary sites. This was paralleled with an increased emphasis on linguistic evidence.22

Though on a much smaller scale, research did continue. In the 1930s Boyd and Boyd undertook serological studies to attempt to determine blood types from mummy tissues and Moodie x-rayed mummies and identified skeletal pathology from the Chicago Field Museum collection.

One of the by-products of World War II was the development of new technologies, which could then be modified for non-military applications. Electron microscopes, for example, were used to examine mummified tissue by the end of the 1950s.

The 1960s saw new interest in the potential of human remains to provide evidence about the past. The fascination with scientific techniques that could be applied to human remains, including hair and soft tissue, is reflected in the publications of Brothwell and Sandison.23 New developments in blood antigen serology meant that further studies could be made in an attempt to establish familial relationships between mummified individuals. The effect of changes to human tissue after death, desiccation and time on interpretation of ancient remains was also addressed.24

This work led the way to a revival of mummy investigations in the 1970s. The dissection of a number of Egyptian mummies in Detroit by Cockburn and a huge interdisciplinary team of scientists, led to the formation of the Palaeopathology Association.25 Other major mummy projects were also carried out in the US and UK. Perhaps the most notable was that of the Manchester Museum. Rosalie David reinstated the interdisciplinary programme commenced by Margaret Murray in the first decade of the twentieth century. This type of investigation of mummies in museum collections has now become a global exercise.

Scholars quickly appreciated the bene fits non-destructive x-ray technology provided when it became available. Similarly, CT (Computed Axial Tomography) scans found favour soon after the technique was developed. CT scans enable the production of three-dimensional images. Further, the associated software enables specific features to be isolated. Density differences can be used to produce soft tissue images. Numerous other techniques have been developed and employed since the 1970s to gain information about diet, genetic relationships, diseases and methods of mummification.

The problem of post-mortem changes to some cells initially limited the use of electron microscopy but this has been mitigated by coupling it with an electron probe that is capable of energy dispersive x-ray analysis, known as EDXA. This technique is especially useful in the diagnosis of ancient pathology, as are immunohistological studies and endoscopy. Stable isotope ratio studies in skeletal and soft tissues provide some indication of diet. Small sequences of DNA have been recovered and amplified from ancient soft tissue. These may provide evidence of both genetic relationships between mummies and infectious agents, such as bacteria.26

The main limitation to recent mummy research has been cost. One of the factors that assisted cutting-edge research on Egyptian mummies is the fact that mummies were transported trans-globally during the nineteenth century and eventually found their way into museum collections. This provided two distinct advantages, which enabled research that would not have been possible on finds from a site like Pompeii. First, there were numerous accessible mummies and, second, the expense of working on discrete collections could be more easily borne by individual museums or research institutions. Until comparatively recently, researchers were not compelled to obtain permission from Egyptian authorities to perform x-ray or other analysis on mummies held in collections around the world. This contrasts strongly with the majority of the skeletal material from Pompeii, where access is limited and controlled by the Italian Superintendency. While it is essential for a country to control its heritage, obtaining permission to undertake analysis was limited until the latter part of the twentieth century, when a policy that encouraged scientific research was implemented.


Human skeletal remains found in archaeological contexts have not always been treated with respect and their potential as a source of evidence was not appreciated by early excavators. Skeletons were routinely discarded from numerous archaeological sites right into the twentieth century. Human finds from both Pompeii and Egypt were unique for a number of reasons. The survival of the forms of bodies in Pompeii and the actual soft tissue in Egypt, coupled with the remarkable preservation of their contexts and the impressive array of associated artefacts, gave these sites unrivalled appeal. The initial treatment of human finds both in Pompeii and Egypt was similar. Skeletons and mummies were used as props for vignettes or re-excavations that were produced for the edification of visitors. Human finds from both Pompeii and Egyptian tomb sites inspired popular literature and film.

A fortuitous series of circumstances in Egypt produced an environment that was conducive to scientific research. This resulted in mummy research providing a benchmark for all investigation of ancient human remains, especially in the field of palaeopathology. Numerous mummies have been subjected to analysis with no reference to the huge body of popular culture based on mummy finds. In contrast, there was no associated culture of science in Pompeii and it was, therefore, more likely that popular culture would have a greater impact. Pompeian research on human remains not only lagged behind that of Egypt but was also palpably influenced by one particular work of fiction, The Last Days of Pompeii. So the key difference between the study and interpretation of human remains from Pompeii and Egypt up to the final decades of the twentieth century is that in Pompeii skeletal investigation remained bound with popular culture, whilst in Egypt popular culture and scientific research had a parallel existence with no apparent overlap.

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