There was nothing that a gentleman of some learning enjoyed doing more of an evening in the 1820s than joining men of similar rank and learning to tear the linen wrapping off a three thousand year old corpse. Preferably over a glass of agreeable claret and maybe a chamber orchestra playing nearby. Unwrapping the mummies of ancient Egypt became a gruesome 19th century craze evidenced by a slew of newspaper reports and classified ads that I’ve unearthed in my voluminous archives!
It was one of several tasteless ways in which the mummies of Ancient Egypt were treated. They weren’t only unwrapped but featured in theatre productions and Victorian freak shows. Read on!
Spicing up a Cabinet of Curiosities
The Cranium Club in Connecticut announced in the local newspaper in 1817 that its very own Cabinet of Curiosities was now brimming with new additions “lately brought from the East” by a gentleman traveller. This included a ram’s horn sounded at the siege of Jericho as described in the Old Testament. A brick from the Tower of Babel. One tree stump from the Garden of Eden. And “a piece of petrified corset” once worn by Delilah, another biblical character.
But the pride and joy was an Egyptian mummy. And not just any old Egyptian mummy. This was the best one in the United States by a mile. Another American state boasted about its ancient artefact but this one “beats the Kentucky mummy all to rags”. Well, that was the Kentuckians told!
This cabinet of curiosities was one of many at the time. At the Museum of South Carolina, a mummified ancient Egyptian child was shown off next to the “head of a New-Zealand chief, tattoo’d”. Your ticket priced 25 cents would also let you gawp at a stuffed white bear from Greenland; a duck-billed platypus (also stuffed); and four-inch long shoes belonging to women of imperial China whose feet had been bound since birth.
Another reported cabinet in London in 1802 claimed to include the mummy of one of Cleopatra’s children – but didn’t specify which one. As well as the mummy of an ibis and an ancient bust of the aforementioned Cleopatra. Along with other treasure and two living Egyptian goats! All presented by the son of Murad Bey, a Mamluk ruler of Egypt, to a certain Mr. King of King Street (sic), Covent Garden who exhibited them at his gallery.
Mummies of ancient Egypt go to the ballet!
If you’d assumed that all mummies brought to Europe or America where treated respectfully and examined only for scientific advancement, then let me disabuse you of that idea. In the late 1700s, London opera and ballet was dominated by the charismatic Sir John Gallini. Born Giovanni Andrea Battista Gallini in Florence, he’d made his mark in London becoming the Andrew Lloyd Webber of his day.
Gallini took control of the King’s Theatre London’s Haymarket despite a barrage of racist abuse. The next task was to stage a production that would bring a suitably hefty return on his investment. The Times newspaper in 1789 reported that Gallini, “meaning to give every species of entertainment to the public” spirited a well-preserved mummy out of Egypt.
Along with two dancing bears and a dromedary, it became the centrepiece of a new ballet. How the audience reacted, I don’t know. But the theatre burned down in an arson attack later that year. Curse of the mummy?
FIND OUT MORE: Should the dead be on display in museums?
Public unwrapping of the mummies of ancient Egypt
New York in 1824 was humming with anticipation as a mummy arrived after a long voyage with “the body entirely covered by the cloth and bandages of embalming”. Well, that wouldn’t last for long. In front of “respectable witnesses at the College of Physicians”, it was “opened”.
One of the gentleman present certainly felt he got his money’s worth: “My attending friends, and myself, were highly gratified by the fair opportunity we enjoyed of inspecting such a curious piece of antiquity”. A human body to you and me. He went on to recommend that his “fellow citizens” should “view this rare and real production without delay”. Which begs the question in my mind whether this poor mummy was wrapped and unwrapped repeatedly in regular performances.
The following year, 1825, in the northern English city of Leeds and The Leeds Intelligencer and Yorkshire General Advertiser newspaper announced the arrival of several mummies at the Museum of the Philosophical Literary Society. One was the body of a man determined to be a soldier – called Pethor, meaning the Votary of Horus – “a god held in high esteem among the Egyptian soldiers”.
And then he was unwrapped. This mummy failed to provide maximum entertainment – sorry, education. “It presented no very remarkable appearance when opened”. “The linen with which it was abundantly enveloped was of a uniform texture”. In other words, too much unwrapping for not enough wow factor.
“From the powerful odour of asphaltum or mineral pitch” it had been embalmed according to the “third method” mentioned by Herodotus. The skin and flesh had been “almost entirely consumed by a small brown beetle, of which numbers were found in a perfect state among the folds of the linen”.
A larger mummy proved to be much more rewarding. He was called Tesamon – guided by Amon, the newspaper translated. A more richly decorated sarcophagus thrilled those present. Under the lid was another coffin made of cedar wood with a well preserved mask. The hieroglyphs indicated this man was a priest of Osiris.
The body was wrapped in linen of two types – which was compared to linen for sale in the English high street at the time. “The coarser quality is about equal to that which would be bought in the shops at 12d and the finer at 2s. 2d.” The linen formed part of the dress of the deceased, it was reported, and had been repaired through darning.
About fourteen folds of linen were taken off uncovering a wreath of natural flowers and berries on the breast. A little more unwrapping revealed a lotus flower on the head and face. The whole body was covered with pounded spices as well as the cavities of the thorax and abdomen. Into the head were introduced “precious and odoriferous gums”.
As with most of these unwrapping performances – what happened to the bodies, linen, jewels, and even desiccated flowers is left unsaid though one can assume the worst in many cases.