Art, Culture, Books and Travel

Egyptian mummies: Science or sacrilege?

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A shocking photograph of an Egyptian mummy unwrapped greets the visitor to a new exhibition at the British Museum, Ancient Lives, New Discoveries: Eight Mummies, Eight Stories. The photograph was taken in 1908, when the pillage of sacred “curios” from around the world was at its height, and Egypt was under British rule.

The image is painfully symbolic; it shows the skeleton of the 12th Dynasty male Khnum-Nakht laid out on a table. The cloth in which he has been wrapped for thousands of years lies around his remains. A team of scholars are standing over him, including the pioneering Margaret Murray, who was the first woman to be appointed a lecturer of archaeology in the UK. She wears a white pinafore and her hair is wispily pinned up. The unwrapping took place at the Manchester Museum in front of a crowd of 500, eager to see a mystery – literally – stripped.

Mummy unwrappings or “unrollings” were popular public spectacles in the early 20th century, when Egyptology was a new academic discipline. The photograph points to a violation. By cutting open the mummies, scholars and collectors destroyed the fragile layers of embalmment, arranged with care after death in order to ensure the person’s existence in the afterlife. For the ancient Egyptians, the protection of the body was paramount.

In 1908, there seemed to be little fear of the supernatural wrath incurred by the disturbance of the dead, but in 1922 Howard Carter would famously discover the tomb of King Tutankhamun. Mummy mania was born. Some of those associated with the expedition died in mysterious circumstances; “the curse” of the mummy was dramatized in the media. “Death, eternal punishment,” booms the voiceover of the 1932 Hollywood film The Mummy. “For anyone who opens this casket.”

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