Unwrapping the Self: Victorian Mummy Unwrappings and Questions of Mortality

Sara Brio is a first-year doctoral researcher at the University of Leeds. Her thesis examines the intersection between representations of Ancient Egypt in Victorian fiction and nineteenth-century theology. She first became fascinated by Ancient Egypt around the age of seven, when her mother refused to gratify Sara’s request to be mummified in the event of her untimely demise, claiming that it was: ‘too expensive’. Information on her research activities and further childhood disappointments can be found on her University profile: http://www.leeds.ac.uk/arts/profile/40000/1357/sara_brio.

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Paul Dominique Philippoteaux (1845-1924) Examen d’une momie – Une prêtresse d’Ammon (Examination of a Mummy – The Priestess of Ammon) (Egypt, c.1895 – 1910).

Buried at the bottom of page 831 of The Illustrated London News from 28 December, 1889, is a short article entitled: ‘Unrolling a Mummy.’ It begins with a terse summation of the events of the 18th of December wherein ‘[t]here was a large attendance in the botanical theatre of University College on Dec. 18 to witness the unrolling of a mummy, which had for half a century occupied a place in the college museum.’[i] The article goes on to describe how the mummy was slowly unrolled, examined, and then returned to the recesses of the university to ‘undergo further examination by scientific experts’.[ii] The gender of the preserved corpse is unknown. Only one further sentence in the article gestures towards the body’s personal identity: ‘The person appeared to have been called Bek-Ran or Bek-Ranef.’[iii]

The story of Bek-Ran/Bek-Ranef, or rather, the lack thereof, offers an interesting glimpse into the treatment of Ancient Egyptian artefacts in the Victorian era and their relation to questions of personal identity in the ever-advancing industrial age. ‘Mummy unwrappings’ were a common event in the early nineteenth century. Societies such as the Egypt Exploration Fund (founded in 1882 by Amelia Edwards, Reginald Stuart Poole, and Erasmus Wilson) and the Society of Biblical Archaeology (founded in 1870 by Dr. Samuel Birch) used to host unveilings in an effort to attract patrons to fund their excavations and digs.

Unwrappings were also viewed as a means to advance the Victorians’ understanding of ancient cultural practices from an anthropological perspective. E. A. Wallis Budge, the Keeper of Egyptian and Assyrian Antiquities at the British Museum from 1894-1924 and the presiding ‘unwrapper’ in attendance on the night of 18th December used observations made during the unwrapping of Bek-Ran/Bek-Ranef to comment on embalming practices in a short pamphlet entitled: ‘Prefatory remarks made on Egyptian mummies on the occasion of unrolling the mummy of Bak-ran’ burying the mummy’s identity within realms of anthropological study.

Mummy unwrappings were a way to unite Victorians with the ‘mystery’ and sensational spectacle of Ancient Egypt. Nicholas Daly, in ‘The Mummy Story as Commodity’ writes:

Embodied, made bituminous flesh, mystery came up against the saw, the scissors, the hammer and the chisel […] the audience could not only gaze upon this investigative process, its luckier members could take part in it, could handle the very bandages that, stripped away layer by layer, revealed Egyptian mystery incarnate.[iv]

But not all Victorians had such a favourable attitude towards such treatment of the dead. In attendance on the evening of 18th December was prolific author Sir H. Rider Haggard; Rider Haggard had recently published an Egyptian romance novel Cleopatra in the ILN earlier that year. In Cleopatra, the mummy of the Pharoah Menkau-Ra is viciously unwrapped by the Ptolemaic Cleopatra, who rips the mummy apart in order to find a vast treasure buried inside the corpse. The consequences of her actions are to live out the rest of her days under the curse of Menaku-Ra, which follows her to her death.

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H. Rider Haggard

For Rider Haggard, using a mummy for material gain was an issue that struck straight to the heart of the Victorians’ humanity. He questioned the religious ethics of displaying mummies in museums in an article for The Daily Mail in 1904, pleading with the British public and press to stop displaying mummies and return them to Egyptian tombs to preserve them. He even appeals to the British person’s religious sympathies: ‘Yet we who are Christians and share the cardinal doctrines of their faith treat them thus.’[v] At one point, he suggests placing all of the royal mummies in the Great Pyramid and sealing it with cement so that they might not be disturbed again.

This is a very interesting statement coming from a writer who, like many other authors at the time, specialised in Victorian Egyptian fiction. Indeed, it makes one wonder about the inherent hypocrisy of Rider Haggard’s statement. What was the difference between a mummy unveiling and the treatment of mummies in fiction that caused one to be classed as an unethical, irreligious act and the other good, sensational fiction?

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Maurice Greiffenhagen, illustration from Cleopatra Longmans, Green, and Co. (1889).

In ‘Bodies in Exile: Egyptian Mummies in the Early Nineteenth Century and Their Implications’, Susan Pearce refers to wealthy Victorians who purchased mummies or other Egyptian artefacts as ‘entrepreneurial purveyors of a particular kind of imperial good’.[vi] But I think the issue for Rider Haggard is less imperial in nature—though surely that plays a key role in a discussion of cultural artefacts—and more mortal. This is evidenced by the fact that Rider Haggard returns again and again to themes of death and the afterlife in his Egyptian novels, issues that he never seems able to fully reconcile in either religious or physical terms.

What appears to have struck Rider Haggard as a physical reality on the night of the 18th of December 1889 – and still touches me as I write this over one hundred years later – is the brief sentence in the ILN article: ‘The person appeared to have been called Bek-Ran or Bek-Ranef.’

These ten words are all that remain of the identity of a tangible, flesh-and-blood human being. Their family, livelihood, passions, pet hates, accomplishments, favourite foods, all this has been lost to the sands of time. Great Britain voraciously attempted to collect and study ancient relics seemingly in an effort to better understand their own anthropological and religious history, but as more and more objects filled the Egyptian rooms at the British Museum, I wonder if the Victorians began to think less about the history of Egypt and more about their own legacy.

Perhaps being so starkly confronted with the reality of mortality is the true ‘curse’ of the mummy. The non-existent story of Bek-Ran/Bek-Ranef in the newspapers stretches out from the tombs of Egypt to haunt Victorian society with the question of their own futures. Will they one day be exhumed and examined, relegated to a single sentence in a piece of cultural ephemera? As a researcher in this field, I often wonder if this question is any less relevant today? Are we not still a society embroiled within debates over the legitimacy of sacred scripture, the nature of the afterlife, the origins of humanity, and the role of the individual in an age of machines? In any case, I hope that by exciting such discussion, we will allow Bek-Ran/Bek-Ranef to live once more, if only for a brief span of time.


[i] ‘Unrolling a Mummy,’ Illustrated London News, 28, December, 1889, p. 831.

[ii] Ibid.

[iii] Ibid.

[iv] Daly, Nicholas, ‘The Mummy Story as Commodity Theory’, in Modernism, Romance, and the Fin de Siècle, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999) pp. 84-117 (p. 88).

[v] H. Rider Haggard, ‘The Trade in the Dead,’ The Daily Mail, 22 June, 1904, p. 4.

[vi] Susan Pearce, ‘Bodies in Exile: Egyptian Mummies in the Early Nineteenth Century and their Cultural Implications,’ in Displaced Persons: Conditions of Exile in European Culture, Ed. by Sharon Ouditt (Hants: Ashgate, 2002) pp. 54-72 (p. 63).

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2 responses to “Unwrapping the Self: Victorian Mummy Unwrappings and Questions of Mortality

  1. Pingback: Episode 74: Look Upon My Works, And Despair! Curse of the Pharaohs – Just A Story·

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