In the 19th century, a very popular form of entertainment was the mummy unwrapping party. You could go to a private or public event at which an ancient Egyptian mummy would be unrolled and examined. Bandages would be passed around, touched and smelled, ancient jewellery would be admired, and a the dead body of an Egyptian would be revealed at the end.
So, how did this bizarre and macabre spectacle come to be? Where did the Victorians get all these mummies? Were they all comfortable with this gruesome spectacle?
Are we happy, today, to continue to display these mummies in museums?
And how did all this feed into the enduring fascinating with Egypt – from mummies’ curses to the Tomb of Tutankhamun, mummy fiction to Brendan Fraser romping around Egypt?
Dr Eleanor Dobson is Lecturer in Nineteenth Century Literature at the University of Birmingham. Her work focuses on the reception of ancient Egypt in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. She teaches literature from the late eighteenth century to the present, with particular focus on the Gothic genre, the natural world, gender and sexuality. You can read her full bio here
Alice Procter is a historian of material culture based at UCL. She has six years of tour guiding experience at heritage sites and galleries, and curates exhibitions, organises events, makes podcasts and writes things under the umbrella of The Exhibitionist. She tweets @aaprocter.
You can read a review of the tours in the Guardian here
The Jimmy Cake (Spectre & Crown) “The Day The Arms That Came Out Of The Wall”
Overhead, The Albatross (Learning To Growl) “Bara”
Overhead, The Albatross (Learning To Growl) “Theme For A Promise”
Overhead, The Albatross (Learning To Growl) “Paroxysm”
Other Music & Clips
The Mummy Official Trailer (1932)
“Egyptian ghost singing”. Freesound.org
Old King Tut (In Old King Tutenkhamen’s Day) – Billy Jones & Ernest Hare (1923)
Louisa May Alcott Lost in a Pyramid; or, The Mummy’s Curse
Jane Webb The Mummy!: Or a Tale of the Twenty-Second Century
Arthur Conan Doyle “Lot No. 249”
Arthur Conan Doyle “The Ring of Thoth”
Bram Stoker The Jewel of the Seven Stars
The Mummy, dir. Karl Freund (1932)
The Mummy, dir. Stephen Sommers (1999)
The Mummy, dir. Alex Kurtzman (2017)
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I’m Conor Reid, with Words To That Effect
Picture the scene
It’s January, 1834. You’re in London, at the Royal College
of Surgeons. You’ve managed to acquire a ticket for a highly anticipated and
completely sold out event. So popular The Archibishop of Canterbury has been
This is the unwrapping of the mummy Horsiesi, an
incense-bearing priest in the Temple of Ammon. The mummy has been brought to
London from Thebes and the well-known surgeon and antiquarian Thomas Pettigrew
is to lead the unwrapping of the body in front of a rapt audience.
You were there at midday, when the doors opened, but even
still you have to stand, as the room is completely full.
Finally, after an hour of waiting and anticipation the buzz
of conversation dies down, and you wait for the spectacle to begin.
Pettigrew solemnly walks in and addresses the captivated audience, explaining the technical details of mummification.
Then the bandages are unwrapped, slowly revealing the dead
body underneath. As more and more bandages are removed, a small carved scarab
beetle is discovered.
It’s difficult to get through some of the layers of
bandages, but slowly the head is revealed – the eyes removed and enamel
ornaments in their place.
As the unwrapping comes to an end, there is some excitement
as another item is found among the bandages, but in this case it is only a clay
model. No coins or papyrus or priceless ornaments in this particular mummy.
Mummy unwrappings were hugely popular in Europe throughout
the 19th century.
And not just in the formal setting of somewhere like the
Royal College of Surgeons.
People were unrolling mummies everywhere. At exclusive,
august institutions, at public events, at private gatherings. There were
unwrapping parties – after dinner entertainment for those with enough money to
purchase their own mummy.
To us, today, they seem like such bizarre, macabre
In some, especially later unwrapping (you get newspaper account) – depends how hard it is to get into the mummy – specimens hacked or sawed apart
Amulets would be passed around, people sniffing bits of bandages
This is Dr Eleanor Dobson, Lecturer in 19th
Century Literature in the University of Birmingham, and an expert in the
reception of ancient Egypt in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.
of it – when you think of stereotypes – not necessarily true stereotypes of
Victorian age – as prudish – there’s a naked body at the end
narratives would say it’s the body of the princess, almost never was of course,
sometimes it was a man at the end. So maybe that would be the climax
[music fade in – mysterious]
So, what’s going on here?
Why are Victorian people unwrapping mummies at parties?
Where did they get all these mummies?
Were they all comfortable with this fairly gruesome
spectacle? Are we happy, today, to continue to display these mummies in
And how did all this feed into the enduring fascinating with Egypt – from mummies’ curses to the Tomb of Tutankhamun, mummy fiction to Brendan Fraser romping around Egypt.
Mummies have long been a source of fascination and were, as
far back as the 16th century, considered to be a cure for all sorts
of ailments. You could go to an apothecary and buy a piece of ground up mummy to
be ingested as a cure for internal bleeding.
Painters from the 16th century onwards would have
been very familiar with the colour mummy brown – a mixture of white pitch, myrrh,
and, yes, the ground-up remains of Egyptian mummies.
But in the 19th century, the craze for mummies
reached unprecedented new heights as Egyptomania swept Europe.
This craze for Egypt was driven by a number of things: a
fascination with death and the dead, an interest, in an age of Empires, in
ancient wealthy and powerful civilizations. But it also had to do with access.
As the century wore on, it became easier for Europeans to visit places such as
Egypt – tourist cruises to ancient Egyptian sites were well established by the
And this was a very
It seems kind of horrifying to us today but, in the 19th
century, if you visited Egypt you could climb up the Great Pyramid at Giza,
have a bit of lunch at the top, and then chisel your name into the stone to
mark the occasion. You could stroll around wherever you liked, clamber over
ancient monuments, chip off pieces off hieroglyphics as keepsakes. Or maybe
just have a look for any nice antiquities to bring home as a souvenir. And, of
course, you could, with a bit of cash, acquire your very own mummy.
From the mid 19th century it become harder and
harder to get an entire body, especially one of a supposed “Pharaoh” or
“princess” or priest, and these are all in definite inverted commas. But hands
or feet or other body parts were readily available, and cheap to buy. They
could also be more easily smuggled out of the country in suitcases when
stricter laws were passed in Egypt about exporting mummies.
By the end of the 19th century, though, demand
started to far outstrip supply and, inevitably, fakes started cropping up.
People made good money manufacturing mummies
Now, all this easy access to Egypt was facilitated by
colonialism and conquest, a topic which is never far from any discussion of
histories of British involvement in Egypt starts with Napoleon Bonaparte going
over in 1798 where he occupied Egypt and then the British went in and defeated
the French at the Battle of the Nile and over the next fair chunk of the
century the British and French are vying for control – Brit occupied Egypt in 1882 and it wasn’t
until the 1950s that the last British troops left Egypt
French, and then British control of Egypt meant that the
country was opened up for relic hunters, explorers and tourists, as well as
archaeologists and antiquarians building private and national collections, such as those amassed in
the Louvre or the British Museum.
In many cases, ancient artefacts could be easily taken out
of the country by ambassadors whose position of authority allowed them to remove
them unchecked. In other cases, explorers were hired to gather them
showman explorers – Giovanni Belzoni goes to Egypt – does destructive things to
get what he wants – dynamite on pyramids
What he brings back becomes crowd pleasing
found whole rooms full of bodies – a lot were bought on thee black market.
Essentially the richer you were, the more likely it would be that you could get
your hands on your own mummy
In the last episode on dinosaurs, we saw how museums played
a hugely important part in the popular interest in dinosaurs, by allowing the
average person to see one up close. It was very much the same with mummies.
in 19th cent go from being exclusive to places which welcome
everyone from all walks of life – more people can see mummies
So, over the centuries, a mummy went from something
medicinal that might be consumed, to something used to make paint, to an
entertaining spectacle to behold at a party, to a key part of any national museum.
The fascination with ancient Egypt continued. Ancient Egypt
and the mummy became a staple of popular culture, a part of literature and
theatre, art and architecture.
And then, in 1922 something really big happened.
After years of searching, the British archaeologist Howard
Carter discovered the Tomb of Tutankhamun. An incredibly well-preserved tomb
with over 5000 items, including a solid gold coffin and the famous facemask now
so well known all over the world, the Tomb of Tutankhamun was an unprecedented
find. An undisturbed tomb of a Pharaoh over 3000 years old.
People descended on the area from all over the world, there
were constant updates in the papers as the excavation took place. The
fascination with Egypt reached fever pitch.
And, along with all this popular interest, there’s a
resurgence in interest in the curse of the mummy
But before we get to mummy curses, I’m going to take a quick
break. This podcast, as I’m sure you’re aware, is part of the Headstuff Podcast
Network, and I wanted to play you a quick trailer of one of our other shows.
So, the mummy’s curse, then. By the time of Tutankhamun’s
discovery, it’s an idea that’s been around for a while
a late 19th cent idea. Few stories about travellers who get mummy
and then when they return to Britain bad things start happening – they usually
try to offload it to the British Museum
artefact in particular – it’s called the unlucky mummy, it’s in the British museum
– not actually a mummy it’s a painted wooden mummy board – that has been blamed
for loads of coincidental deaths but also for things like the sinking of the
Titanic and the outbreak of WWI
So it was
inevitable, really, that these stories and superstitions would get attached to
the discovery of the tomb of Tutenkhamun
so when this discovery is made and the patron of expectation – Lord Carnarvan –
gets infection and dies – the paper’s latch onto this idea
It seems very obvious to us now, and to many people at the
time, that so many of these ideas about mummies’ curses, mummies getting
revenge for being disturbed and desecrated, were wrapped up in feelings of
of the big things that changes across the time from late Vic to early 20th
cent is that people become more ethically questioning – should we be unwrapping
and displaying these bodies
political awareness- ppl were in touch with what was happening in Egypt
from people saying let’s get mummies over and have a good time thru to ppl like
Haggard – and he’s fascinating he changes his mind from wanting to get them to
wanting to bury them
being uncomfortable with what Britain is doing politically in terms of
And these connections with colonialism and empire, the often
dark history behind museum collections, is something with real contemporary
And so to understand this a bit more I had a chat with Alice
Alice Procter I run a project called Uncomfortable Art Tours which is
unauthorised guided tours in museums – I show up in private groups and we do
pretty little secret turs talking about colonial history in national
I came across Alice when her tours came to prominence in the
media in Britain. The Guardian and
other outlets covered her increasingly popular tours. The Daily Mail was,
unsurprisingly, outraged at this young Australian attempting to disparage the glorious
legacy of the British Empire.
running these tours as a way of making these narratives visible. The main thing
I try to convey is that colonial history is in every museum collection, every
historical site, every aspect of British and European history, any post
is everywhere, it gets into everything but it’s not necessarily obvious or
visible and so the thing that I try to do is take groups through the
collections and, using the objects on display and how they are presented in the
museum, break that down so we can understand the colonial legacy and the context
behind these pieces.
With the badges she hands out, reading “Display it Like You
Stole It”, the tours have caused controversy among the general public as well
as those running the museum and art galleries she provides tours of.
slightly fraught relationship. I always start the tours by saying I don’t work
here. For the most part the museums – we just politely ignore each other. I’m
bringing visitors to their doors which is important
coming in to the gallery and saying “this place is full of lies” but I am
coming in and “saying this place doesn’t tell the whole story”
want to be an authority voice, I want to be a voice in a bigger choir of
responses to the collection. I don’t w ant to say I’m the only person but I
don’t think the museums should be presenting their narrative as singular that’s
never a good or healthy thing if you have only one perspective that we all have
to fall in line with
So what about all those mummies
in museum collections in Britain and other countries. How do we deal with them
today? Most people, I think we can say, are happy to agree that clambering over
ancient monuments and carving your initials into them is not something that
should be permitted at ancient sites. But mummies still form a central and
renowned part of so many great museums across the world
I don’t do
human remains and I don’t do mummies because I believe its completely
inappropriate to have them on display
about how they come into the collection but we don’t look at them
One of the
elements around repatriation. So many
objected are not meant to be on show. Things like remains and secret sacred
objects that aren’t meant to be seen by the general public
museum to then put a mummy in a gallery without any warning as you come in that
there will be human remains there, without any dignity given to the person
whose body is now on display I think it’s very inappropriate and disrespectful
So on my
tours I don’t go into galleries that have mummies on show. We avoid them but
talk about them
Back to late 19th and early 20th
century and this uneasiness with colonial appropriation is beginning to appear.
And it fed into how mummies were portrayed in popular literature and culture.
Mummy’s frequently sought revenge for the wrong done to them.
Mummies became a part of adventure fiction, but also gothic
and horror literature. Arthur Conan Doyle, the great genre fiction all-rounder,
wrote two very influential mummy tales:
are a few influential 19th early 20th cent bits and bobs
we can still see influence
wrote a couple of mummy stories – Lot no 249 & The Ring of Thoth – they
give us the two sides of mummy we are familiar with – the crumbling, scary
mummy and the beautiful perfectly preserved female mummy, sim to The Mummy love
transcending the millennia – so ACD has a lot to answer for
Stoker, famous of course as the creator of Dracula, that other great supernatural
monster, was writing mummy stories
Stoker – The Jewel of the 7 Stars – 6 years between when that novel and Dracula
was published – similar themes – aristocrat in invades London but it’s a woman
so there’s a shift – very much the same kind of story
of the other things that emerges in this type of literature
on in mummy fiction we get women being central to the writing of these stories.
We think of 19th cent arch as being male dominated
called Jane Webb writing the first mummy reanimation story in 1827 – The Mummy!
A Tale of the 22nd Cent.
May Alcott (Little Women) also wrote this great mummy’s revenge story Lost in a
Pyramid – people we don’t expect, dabbling in it
And of course, there’s cinema too. The 1920s saw the discovery
of the Tomb of Tutankhamun, and the rise of cinema. Think of all those 1920s art
deco cinemas with ancient Egyptian motifs and decorations. Egyptomania was everywhere
original The Mummy – of its time you can see a nationalist streak in it
remake of that – falls into some of the same pitfalls but is done in a way
that’s funny and glitzy we expect that – Liz Taylor as Cleopatra
That’s the Stephen Sommers directed film with Brendan Fraser
and Rachel Weisz.
from the Mummy’s Tomb – there’s this kind of campy over the top when we think
of Egypt in film
Today, the Egyptian collections of major museums are still a
huge draw, and we are still culturally fascinated by mummies, even if the
Egyptomania of the 19th and early 20th centuries has died
Issues around repatriation of museum pieces, including
numerous Egyptian artefacts, flare up all the time. Just the other week, the
National Museum of Scotland announced plans to display a rare casing stone from
the Great Pyramid of Giza. Egypt is not happy with this and now wants access to
the certification documents for the stone and every Egyptian antiquity in the Museum. The Museum, on the other
hand, says it is confident it was legally removed from Egypt in 1872. These
sorts of problems are not going to go away.
Nor, ultimately, is our enduring fascination with ancient
Egypt. Egypt itself is at a crossroads of so many countries and cultures, both past
And we will continue to ground the mummy in our own
Look at the most recent mummy film with Tom Cruise, where
the mummy is found, not in Egypt, but, of course, in Iraq.
The mummy – with all its political, colonial, and cultural connections
– is not going away.
Interest may not quite be at the level of the Egyptomania of
a century ago.
But the next wave of mass cultural fascination, is waiting,
silently, to be discovered
That’s it for another week of Words To That Effect, thanks
so much for listening.
I guess you could call that the second instalment of my
exploration of pop culture monsters, after the zombie episode in season 2.
There will be a vampire one at some point in the future, but let me know if you
think I should do any others.
Special thanks to my two guests this week. You can find a
full bio and links to Dr Eleonor Dobson’s work on mummies, Egypt, and other
areas on the Words To That Effect website. I’ve put links there too to Alice
Procter’s Uncomfortable Art Tours as well as further reading, lots of images,
and a full transcript of the episode.
All of this is at wttepodcast.com
Music this week was by two great Irish bands, The Jimmy Cake
and Overhead, The Albatross. Links to their sites and music is at the wtte site
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