Art, Meds, and Fuel - The Surprising Historical Uses of Ancient Mummies
By Liz Leafloor | Epoch Times
Mummies are a familiar image in modern Western culture, sometimes silently resting in glass museum cases, or other times shuffling along on two cursed feet, moaning and draped in ragged linens in Hollywood films. Mummies, unlike other human remains, are even now regarded as special, exciting artifacts. However, it was not too long ago that mummies were used in unconventional ways—as drugs, as entertainment, and perhaps even as fuel.
Although mummies can be found on every continent all over the world, they’re often associated with ancient Egypt. Early sources of the preserved remains of humans and animals were grave robbers, who plundered tombs and burial sites, searching for gold, jewelry, and valuables. Sometimes the bodies would be sold as they gained mystique and value.
In the early 19 th century, archaeological science was in its infancy, but expeditions became very popular following Napoleon’s campaign into Egypt and Syria. Scientific excavations in Egypt were well intentioned, but not always headed by scholars or experts, and were often opportunistic digs by rich, curious amateurs. This resulted in sites, artifacts, and knowledge being damaged or destroyed. Medical dissections of mummies were more theater than forensics.
The Egyptian Expedition under the orders of Napoleon Bonaparte. Léon Cogniet, early 19th century. (Public Domain)
Not seen or regarded as the remains of loved ones, mummies were instead treated as a commodity, a curiosity, and a relic of an ancient age—the properties of which were mystical and powerful. They played a role not only in the arts, sciences, and culture of Europe, America, and other places around the globe, but they also had many surprising (and dubious) historical uses:
Ancient Egyptian mummies were ground up and made into a brown oil paint in the 16 th and 17 th centuries. Known as Caledonian Brown, Egyptian Brown, or even simply Mummy Brown, the rich pigment was made from the remains of both human and feline bodies. Despite its tendency to crack, it was a very popular pigment—until artists eventually discovered what it was being made from. British artist Edward Burne-Jones is said to have given his tube of paint a ceremonial burial in his back garden once he realized its origins.
Painting done with Mummy Brown paint. “Interior of a Kitchen,” Martin Drolling, 1814. (Public Domain)
It was claimed that one mummy could supply enough paint to last several artists for twenty years. Eventually the supply of mummies for use in paint dwindled (as did the number of artists who wanted dead bodies in their paint), and Mummy Brown is now made with the mineral hematite.
- Mummy Brown – the 16th century paint made from ground up mummies
- Intriguing discoveries from million-mummy necropolis in Egypt revealed
- Egyptian Mummies – to unwrap or not to unwrap?
According to Smtihsonian.com, European beliefs and practices (and those of cultures around the world) in the 16 th and 17 th centuries included eating and drinking human remains—ground bones, blood, and fat—as medicines to treat ailments; they were cures for everything from headaches to mental illnesses and deadly diseases. So it was no leap to use the “magical and powerful” mummies for the same purposes.
British monarch Charles II would rub mummy dust on his skin to absorb the “greatness.”
A study in the Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine reveals that mummies were widely used as drugs or medicine in Europe for hundreds of years. As early as the Middle Ages, ancient mummies were taken from Egypt and ground into powder. This was to be swallowed or applied topically, and it’s said that British monarch Charles II would rub mummy dust on his skin to absorb the “greatness.” This “corpse medicine” eventually died out as science and modern medicine made gains, but examples of using mummies as drugs still popped up in catalogs in Europe as late as the 20 th century.
The linen wrappings and papyrus fibers from mummies were said to be made into printing paper in the United States. This is more urban legend than fact. In the 1850s, America was reaching a dilemma in paper-making. Producing more newspapers than any other country, it was in need of raw paper materials to keep up with output. The claim that mummies and their wrappings were used to fill this requirement hasn’t been proven but it was an idea widely discussed, and was reported in an 1847 issue of Scientific American.
Archaeologist Dr. Isaiah Deck wrote in 1855 on the availability of mummy burial sites as resources, “So numerous are they in some localities out of the usual beaten tracks of most travelers, that after the periodical storms whole areas may be seen stripped of sand, and leaving fragments and limbs exposed in such plenty and variety.”