Public “unwrappings” of mummified human remains performed by both showmen and scientists heightened the fascination, but also helped develop the growing science of Egyptology.
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 Murray’s 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.”
“Public spectacles that displayed mummified remains as objects of curiosity date back to the 16th century and these types of spectacles were highly engaging shows in which people were, to a certain degree, educated about different aspects of science both by showmen and scientists.”
Many Egyptologists drew a distinction between “Egyptomania,” the fascination with all things Egypt, and “Egyptology,” the scientific study of Egyptian life, Sheppard says, but Murray had a different goal – involving the public in scientific inquiry with a goal of correcting popular misconceptions.
“Murray tried to get the public to see that mummies weren’t magical, they were just preserved human remains to be studied and learned from,” Sheppard explains. “In other words, rather than trying to separate the ‘mania’ from the ‘ology,’ she wanted to bring reason and understanding to the mania.”
Past Horizons. 2012. “Unwrapping the mummy – performance and science”. Past Horizons. Posted: December 4, 2012. Available online: http://www.pasthorizonspr.com/index.php/archives/12/2012/unwrapping-the-mummy-performance-and-science