Nov 19, 2022
Not the Movie, But...
When you think of the fascinating world of mummies, most people would think of the handsome (and loveable) Brendan Fraser in the movie franchise The Mummy. If you are a history buff, you may think about the hieroglyphics, Cleopatra and Antony or even King Tutankhamun’s golden death mask.
But there’s much more to the practice of mummification that you may not know. Here are some interesting and some shocking facts that I bet you did not know about mummies.
All photos provided by Jocelyne Brisson. Taken in Egypt.
Egypt is not the OG Mummers
That is correct. Egyptians were not to first ones to mummify their dearly departed.
The Chinchorro were in fact the first to do so. The Chinchorro culture of South America was a preceramic culture that lasted from 9,100 to 3,500 years BP (Years Before Present). They had more than one method of mummifying the dead. The Chinchorro mummification evolved through three distinct styles—black, red and mud-coated. However, this practice died out sometimes in the first century B.C.
The black style (ca. 5050-2500 B.C.) was by far the most involved out of all three of them.
To fully achieve this style the body would have to be completely dismembered and put back together using reed, clay and various other materials to stuff and reconstruct the corpses. Archeologists say that this is a work of art. Nowadays, these mummies are so fragile due to the unbaked clay that is simply disintegrating with very little movements.
About 2500 B.C., well red is the new black!
This time around, the method has changed quite drastically, and it was a less invasive process compared to the black style.
The only dismemberment was the head, this was to extract the brain. For the rest of the body, neat incisions were made on the extremities and abdomen to remove the muscle and organs. This was later replaced with reeds, clay, sticks and branches and llama fur. Once these mummies were found and studied, Scientists discovered that the cavities in many red mummies showed signs of burning, suggesting that they had been dried with glowing coals. The other difference with the red style was the change of the clay face mask. With the Black Style, the mask maker sculpted the eyes to be closed, almost in an eternal slumber. With the Red style, the eyes and mouth were partially open.
Just rub some dirt in it!
This complex mummification process ceased among the Chinchorro in the third millennium. The bodies were simply desiccated and covered in a thick layer of mud and buried.
Are we still doing this?
Two-thousand years later, the Egyptians started to create their own form of mummification. Believe it or not, this process took 70 days to complete on a single body. Talk about working overtime!
During the embalming, every organ would be removed, dried and placed in one of four canopic jars. Each had their own special meaning and honoured the sons of Horus (a deity). However, the heart was always left in place. Ancient Egyptians believed that this was the center of a person's being and intelligence.
The general consensus of the 18th and 19th century was a chaotic and borderline flippant time for humanity. Would we have desecrated a corps though? Well, of course.
Victorians, however, were absolutely obsessed with Egypt and the afterlife. They even had a fascination with what laid behind all the bandages. The obsession was so strong and prevalent it was even given a name: Egyptomania. Europeans went as far as believing the mummies' remains had healing properties.
Mumia, a medicinal substance created with the mummified remains taken from Egyptian tombs, was sold at local apothecaries. It was to be ingested orally and allegedly cured any ailment you may suffer from. You have a headache? Indigestion? The Plague? Don’t worry about it, Mummy is here to save the day!
This “medicine” was sold and ingested for many centuries. It was later discovered by Guy de la Fontaine, a skeptical royal doctor, that the Mumia medicine was often not mummified royal Egyptian remains. He witnessed forged mummies made from dead peasants in Alexandria in 1564. The forgery was making something quite clear, that there were not enough Egyptian mummies in the world to keep up with the high demand.
Regardless, apothecaries and herbalists continued to dispense mummy medicines well into the 18th century.
By the 19th century Victorians were no longer ingesting Mummy remains, but they had a new kid in town: unwrapping parties. Which sounds exactly like what it is; people coming together for food and drinks where the event of the evening was unwrapping a mummy.
This shocking and immoral entertainment was pioneered by English surgeon Thomas Pettigrew. He was nicknamed “Mummy Pettigrew” due to his extravagant soirees showcasing his unwrapping skills.
Although to be fair, there are reports of mummy unwrapping events that date much earlier. A renowned surgeon simply made it so much more popular. Pettigrew was, needless to say, a remarkable scientist who was famous for a few things, including vaccinating Queen Victoria from smallpox when she was a child. His biggest and most dominant achievement was his anatomical documentation of the mummies he unwrapped. Pettigrew noted everything from the remanence of hair, the pliability of the skin, guessing the ethnicity, etc.
Reading through Pettigrew’s journal most of the unwrapping’s were easy enough. However, there were some that were not as smooth.
Pettigrew himself says, (in the introduction to his 1834 publication about mummies), “…(it) required considerable force to separate the layers of bandage from the body…..and levers were absolutely necessary to raise the bandages and develop the body…”
Some of his spectators, including an elderly woman, were in complete disgust at Pettigrew’s lack of respect for the deceased humans: “…unfortunately inspired so much terror in one poor old woman that, fearing she was about to die, she discharged herself from the house, expressing her aversion to having her remains subjected to ‘the mangling of young Pettigrew…’”
That’s a wrap, I say!
Eventually, and thankfully, this barbaric style of entertainment in a regular family household eventually died out, no pun intended, mostly due to people finally coming to their senses and realizing that maybe this type of “research” should be left to the professionals and that they are human corpses after all, therefore should be treated with a little more respect.
Technology has also advanced astronomically from the levels Pettigrew once used. X-rays and ultrasounds can be used to see what is inside and uncover the mysteries that lie within the layers of resin and cloth and most importantly respect the deceased person.
The lure of Ancient Egypt is still strong and some mummified corpses are sold on the black market. After all this time, they are still for sale, still exploited and still a commodity.