When unrolling mummies was all the rage in Victorian England

In Victorian England, fashionable people would pay to attend mummy unrolling parties, and the more you paid the nearer you could see the performance.

An unwrapped mummy. Photo TIMEA Archive CC BY 2.5

Europeans had been buying mummies since Shakespeare’s times to use them as medicine, pigment or even charms.

Some Egyptian tourism operators even took to “seeding” important visiting spots with mummies specially transported from elsewhere, to ensure that no-one left disappointed.

Mark Twain parodied the widespread misuse of mummies in The Innocents Abroad (1869), writing,

“The fuel [Egyptian railroaders] use for the locomotive is composed of mummies three thousand years old, purchased by the ton or by the graveyard for that purpose . . . sometimes one hears the profane engineer call out pettishly, ‘D–n these plebeians, they don’t burn worth a cent— pass out a King!”

Twain notes that this was “stated to me for a fact. I only tell it as I got it. I am willing to believe it. I can believe anything.” Some of his readers even believed him!

Such was the Victorian craze for mummies that French aristocrat and Trappist monk Abbot Ferdinand de Géramb wrote in 1833,

“it would be hardly respectable, on one’s return from Egypt, to present oneself without a mummy in one hand and a crocodile in the other.”

Unrolling mummies was so popular that on one occasion, the Archbishop of Canterbury was pushed out of a mummy unrolling because the press and crowds we so large he could not get a decent view.

The French novelist and critic Théophile Gautier described an unrolling:

“two white eyes with great black pupils shone with fictitious life between brown eyelids. They were enamelled eyes, such as it was customary to insert in carefully prepared mummies. The clear, fixed glance, gazing out of the dead face, produced a terrifying effect; the body seemed to behold with disdainful surprise the living beings that moved around it… Little by little the body began to show in its sad nudity …. is it not a surprising thing, one that seems to belong to the realm of dreams, to see on a table, in still appreciable shape, a being which walked in the sunshine, which lived and loved five hundred years before Moses, two thousand years before Jesus Christ?”

Unrolling mummies didn’t always go smoothly. One of Pettigrew’s exhibitions ended in failure when, after several hours’ effort, he was unable to separate the substance of the mummy from the wrappings into which it had oozed and become inextricably embedded.

Another Egyptologist, George Gliddon, proudly unrolled the mummy of what he claimed to be a princess in 1850, but as he unrolled it a penis was revealed.

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…”

Invitation, 1850: “Lord Londesborough: At Home: A Mummy from Thebes to be unrolled at half-past two”

The Duke of Hamilton was such a fan of unrolling mummies that he asked Pettigrew to mummify him when he died.  

Accordingly, in 1852 the Duke was interred in the sarcophagus of a nameless Princess which he had acquired years earlier in France.

However, the size of the sarcophagus was wrong, so the duke’s feet had to be sawn off so he could fit in it.

The very British Hamilton, (who is still buried in the sarcophagus), certainly earned his place in Matt Cardin’s Encyclopedia of Mummies (2014).

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