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Science or sacrilege? The trouble with mummies


The mummified body of a Pre-dynastic Egyptian man known as Gebelein Man (formerly called Ginger) in the British Museum

Editing the mummy encyclopedia over the past year and a half has left me with a still-active internal radar that scans the media incessantly for mummy-related news, and a recent (May 20) piece in The Independent about a new exhibition at the British Museum titled “Ancient Lives, New Discoveries: Eight Mummies, Eight Stories” lit up the screen last week like an approaching aircraft carrier.

The teaser conveys the gist:

A blockbuster exhibition at the British Museum unwraps the mysteries of 5,000-year-old Egyptian mummies. Zoe Pilger is fascinated — but not sure they should be on show at all.

The article itself takes the form of an absorbing report in which Ms. Pilger, in addition to describing the exhibition’s content and execution in vivid detail, briefly summarizes the history of scientific mummy studies and the cultural phenomenon of “mummymania” that was ignited by the opening of Tutankhamun’s tomb in 1922.

She talks about mummy unrollings (the popular practice of unwrapping mummies as a public spectacle in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries),  the cultural myth of a “mummy curse,” the incorporation of the curse motif into Universal Studios’ classic 1932 film The Mummy, the use of image scanning technologically (specifically, CT scans) to conduct non-invasive examinations of mummies, the ancient naturally mummified Egyptian body known as Gebelein Man, Margaret Murray’s famous unwrapping of an Egyptian mummy in front of a crowd of 500 onlookers at the Manchester Museum, and the troubling ethical questions that surround the act of examining and displaying human remains like this at all.

Each of these issues is also talked about at length and in detail in the mummy encyclopedia, the last of them (the ethical conundrum) in two separate articles, one titled “Displaying Mummies,” by scientist and mummy researcher Heather Gill-Frerking and the other titled “Collecting Mummies,” by literary scholar Richard Sugg (author of 2011′s Mummies, Cannibals and Vampires: The History of Corpse Medicine from the Renaissance to the Victorians).

I couldn’t help but be impressed at the way Ms. Pilger’s article, in the space of just 1300 words, offers an excellent primer on many crucial issues related to mummies and their scientific and cultural uses. I highly recommend reading the whole thing. Here’s a taste:

The first mummy on display is extraordinary. It seems charged with a supernatural energy and I half expected it to wake up. This young man was in his twenties or early thirties when he curled up into a foetal position and died. He was buried in a cemetery in Gebelein, Upper Egypt, and naturally mummified by the dry, hot sand. His remains are 5,000 years old but his presence is vivid. Most of his skin has been preserved: it covers his delicate bones. His feet are drawn up to his chest and his hands are cupped under his chin, as though pleading. He seems vulnerable, lit in a glass case in a dark room like a relic. He has been transformed into an object and put on display. To look at him provokes a primal feeling of horror. This is death made real.

. . . These bodies were not designed to be seen. There is a tyrannical tendency in Western culture to try to know everything — to decode, demystify, and disenchant even the most sacrosanct of secrets. A fascination with the “magic” of other cultures is coupled with a rationalist incredulity. We don’t believe, and yet we can’t stop investigating — historically, through violent methods. The curators of this exhibition seem aware of this danger. Rather than crude unwrappings as a form of public entertainment, these mummies are explored with scientific rigour and respect. Instead of revulsion, we are encouraged to feel a sense of shared humanity; they are dignified through the small detail of daily life — from the wigs they wore to the beer they drank. However, there is a feeling that they do not belong to us and should not be here.

MORE: “Egyptian mummies: Science or sacrilege?

Image: Photo of Gebelein Man by Jack1956 at the English language Wikipedia [GFDL (, CC-BY-SA-3.0 ( or GFDL (], via Wikimedia Commons