Disrespect and Desecration at Victorian Mummy Unwrapping Parties
A ‘mummy unwrapping party’ was a social event most commonly associated with the elites of Victorian England. As its name suggests, these parties involved the unwrapping of Egyptian mummies in front of an audience. Such parties were highly popular amongst the Victorian elite, and therefore were huge successes, as it blended three elements that the Victorians found irresistible – Egypt, science, and the macabre. Whilst the spectators had their entertainment, the mummies were damaged beyond repair, not to mention desecrated. Eventually, however, such parties lost favor with the elite, as the ‘preservation of the past’ overtook ‘science’ in popularity.
The Egypt Obsession
Europe’s fascination with Egypt may be traced all the way back to Roman Empire. During this time, Egyptian artifacts, such as obelisks, were imported to Rome, and Egyptian works, including statuary and pyramids, were imitated. This interest declined during the Middle Ages, as few Europeans had the opportunity to travel to the Land of the Pharaohs, which became part of the Islamic world. A resurgence of ‘Egyptomania’ occurred during the Renaissance, when the works of Classical authors were discovered. ‘Egyptomania’ was on the rise and reached its height towards the end of the 18 th century.
Poster advertising the ‘unrolling’ of a mummy. 1864.
In 1798, Napoleon invaded, and conquered Egypt. The French invasion force included a large contingent of scientists and scholars, who produced the monumental Description de l’Égypte , bringing the craze for all things Egyptian to its height in Europe. The French lost Egypt in 1801, though Egyptian artifacts continued to be exported from the country in the following decades to satiate the demands of Europeans. It may be said that one of the most sought-after objects was mummies, so much so that they were transported from less visited sites to more popular ones, so as to satisfy the demands of foreign tourists.
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Photo of a public mummy unwrapping. (Image: egyptianaemporium)
Mummy Unwrapping Parties
Whilst some mummies were brought back to Europe as souvenirs and kept in private collections or museums, others were destined to suffer a much more terrible fate, i.e. being unwrapped at a mummy unwrapping party. Some of these parties took place in a private setting, with the host, usually someone who had just returned from Egypt, sending out invitations. Others took place in a public setting, and needless to say, were often sold-out events.
Whilst mummy unwrapping parties could be thrown by anyone who owned a mummy, it required a certain element of showmanship to make them take it to the next level. It was a well-respected surgeon by the name of Thomas Pettigrew who provided this, turning such parties into an unforgettable spectacle for his audience. Some of the mummies he unwrapped even came with unexpected surprises, which further enhanced the performance. One mummy, for instance, was found to have had its head filled with sand, whist another, who was supposed to have been a princess, turned out to be a man instead. Through these mummy unwrapping parties, Pettigrew’s fame grew, so much so that he became the founding treasurer of the British Archaeological Society.
Thomas Pettigrew by Skelton. ( Public Domain )
Although Pettigrew was a showman, it has also been suggested that one of his aims for unwrapping mummies was to prove, through cranial measurements, that the ancient Egyptians were in fact of Caucasian, as opposed to African, origin. The measurement of human skulls was a major part of a pseudoscience known as phrenology, which was immensely popular in Victorian England, but has since been debunked.
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Gaston Maspero working on a mummy in Cairo, 1886. ( Public Domain )
In due course, mummy unwrapping parties fell out of fashion. One of the reasons for this is the realization that carrying out such an activity in the name of ‘science’ was unjustifiable, and that it would be better to preserve the past. Another reason is provided by John J. Johnston, an Egyptologist, who is of the opinion that the Victorians eventually grew bored of these mummy unwrapping parties, as Pettigrew’s performance was more or less the same each time, and the thrill gradually waned. The last known mummy unwrapping, incidentally, was conducted in 1908 in Manchester by Margaret Murray , the first woman to be appointed as a lecturer in archaeology in the UK.
Margaret Murray Unwrapping the Khnum-Nakht Mummy. Credit: The Manchester Museum
Top image: Paul Dominique Philippoteaux, Examen d'une momie - Une prêtresse d'Ammon, oil on canvas, Egypt, c.1895 - 1910. Credit: Peter Nahum at the Leicester Galleries
By Wu Mingren
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