Saturday, April 6, 2013

Victorian Mummy Unwrapping Parties

I am very excited to announce that I will be involved in a Fringe Production this July in Winnipeg, called Miss Mumford's Marvelous Mummy Unwrapping. It tells the tale of a Victorian mummy unwrapping party, being held by two spinster sisters, for the amusement of their guests. Did these parties really happen? Apparently so.

Mummies have always held a particular fascination for many. From 1100 until the 1700s, mummies were thought to get their dark colour from bitumen, which was mistakenly thought to have healing qualities. The colour is actually from a variety of resins used to preserve the body. It was also thought that the Egyptian Hieroglyphs written on the tomb walls were magic spells, thus imbuing the mummies with special mystical powers.
In 1798 Napoleon's army led a campaign in Egypt, and took the country over until 1801, when they were defeated by the British. During the French occupation, a French soldier named Pierre-Francois Bouchard found the Rosetta Stone. It was a stone on which a decree from the Egyptian pharaoh Ptolemy V was written. The decree was written in Egyptian hieroglyphs, Demotic and Ancient Greek. It was this stone that made it possible to decipher the mysterious hieroglyphs. (The stone passed to the British in 1801 and now sits in the British Museum).
Discoveries like this, and the English take over of Egypt, led to a craze of Egyptmania for the 19th century British. Historians and archeologists flocked to the country to explore it's treasures, along with wealthy tourists looking for an exotic vacation.

These tourists were eager to bring home souvenirs from their travels, including mummies which could be bought from street venders. In the 1830s and 40s mummy unwrapping parties became fashionable for the upper class. Sometimes under the guise of education, they would lay the mummy out in the parlour, to be unwrapped after dinner. Any trinkets found on the mummy would be given to guests The invitations were much sought after, as it was considered an exotic affair for the social season.
One side effect though is that the mummies often stank heavily and some guests were reported to leave these parties early overcome by the odour.

Some scientists did unwrap mummies for actual educational purposes, although they often had audiences for this as well.
As Egyptology grew, the awareness of preserving these important artifacts did as well. In 1859 Auguste Mariette started the Egyptian Service of Antiquities, which helped to preserve and document Egyptian artifacts, and slow the sale of them to tourists.
Mummy unwrapping fell out of fashion, but in 1908, famed archeologist Margaret Murray held a mummy unwrapping at Manchester University.
“[the ancient mummy] Khnumu Nekht was bared of his wrappings and brought once more to the light of day. . . . Near the body the linen sheets had rotted, and they fell to pieces at a touch. The bones, however, were more or less perfect. There were traces of flesh on them. It was on the whole a gruesome business, and one or two people left early. (“Mummy of Khnumu Nekht” 1908)”

While I certainly think actually unwrapping a mummy would be extremely unpleasant and frankly unethical. It would be fun to hold a fake mummy unwrapping party.
What are your thoughts?

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  1. Egyptomania is fascinating. I don't know if I mentioned, I am putting something to do with that in one of my stories.

    There is a fascinating episode of the Late Victorian era Canada Murdoch Mysteries about a mummy unwrapping party, where it seems people are struck by the mummy's curse.

    Personally, I wouldn't want to unwrap a real mummy, not just because of the curse, but also because I think it's disrespectful to the culture who believed the dead had to be carefully preserved to go into the afterlife.

    But it makes for fascinating reading!

  2. I think it's cool you guys have Murdoch Mysteries over there. i thought it was just in Canada. I haven't seen the mummy unwrapping one yet though.
    I agree with you that it would be totally disrespectful. It would be fun to do a fake one at Halloween.

  3. This sounds brilliant! Wish I could be there!

    I have written about the unwrapping of mummies during the Victorian period here...

    Rogers, B. (2012). Unwrapping the Past: Egyptian Mummies on Show in Popular Exhibitions, Science and Showmanship, 1840-1910 Ed. J. Kember, J. Olunkette and J.A. Sullivan, 199-218.

    It may be of interest to you and the production...good luck!

  4. By the way...let me know how it goes and I can publish on my Collecting Egypt blog!