Mummies have been objects of horror and fascination in popular culture since the early 1800s at least over a century before Boris Karloff portrayed an ancient Egyptian searching for his lost love in the 1932 film The Mummy.
Public unwrappings of mummified human remains performed by both showmen and scientists heightened the fascination, but also helped develop the growing science of Egyptology.
Margaret Murray, third from left, and team after unwrapping Khnum-Nakht
Dr. Kathleen Sheppard an historian from the Missouri University of Science and Technology argues this point in her latest article entitled Between Spectacle and Science: Margaret Murray and the Tomb of the Two Brothers in the December issue of the journal Science in Context.
A public spectacle
While mummy unwrappings served as public spectacles that objectified exotic artefacts, they were also scientific investigations that sought to reveal medical and historical information about ancient life.
On Thursday, 7 May 1908, The Manchester Guardian reported the unveiling of human remains in the Chemistry Theatre at Manchester University. As the peering collection of men and women looked on:
[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)
Margaret Alice Murray, was leading the gruesome business at the front of the theatre, wearing a white pinafore apron and her hair neatly pinned back.
A few notes survive from the unwrapping in the archives of the Manchester Museum. The only detailed report of the investigation, The Tomb of the Two Brothers, was published two years later and remains today one of the leading studies of the mummification processes and human remains of Middle Kingdom Egypt.
Educating the public
Sheppard says Egyptologist Margaret Murray, the first woman to publicly unwrap a mummy, sought to unravel the mysteries of ancient Egypt by exposing mummified human remains. She says Murrays work is culturally significant because it is poised between spectacle and science, drawing morbid public interest while also producing ground-breaking scientific work that continues to this day.
Margaret Murray and team unwrapping Khnum-Nakht in the Chemistry Auditorium, University of Manchester.
Mummy Unwrapping Parties
"Nobody knows when mummy unwrapping parties first started, but royalty used to throw them quite often. Although mummy unwrapping ultimately went out of fashion, mummies never have."
Mummy Unwrapping Parties were a very popular social event in Victorian England. After dinner the guests would retire to the parlor and the mummy would be unwrapped to reveal the contents and search for trinkets, which the guests would keep as party favors.
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