History of the Egyptian Mummy Part 3

About the history of the Egyptian mummy and tradition of mummification as part of their culture.


From the 13th to the 17th century, "mummy," chopped or powdered, was used in Europe as a cure for bone fractures, tuberculosis, paralysis, and many other ailments. Sir Francis Bacon took it, and it was one of the ingredients in the witches' brew in Shakespeare's Macbeth. Some 16th-century doctors were against it; Ambroise Pare said it was the cause of such symptoms as "paine of the heart or stomake, vomitting, and stinke of the mouth." When Egypt made it illegal to export mummies, black marketeers started faking them from the fresh bodies of people who had died, many of them from infectious diseases.

A Maine papermaker, Augustus Stanwood, imported mummies to make rag paper from their bandages; these turned out to be too stained to produce anything but brown wrapping paper, which, undaunted, he sold to butchers and grocers. When a cholera epidemic was traced to his mill, the practice came to an end.

In 1834, Dr. Thomas J. Pettigrew, later known as "Mummy" Pettigrew, performed his first public mummy unwrapping in London's Royal College of Surgeons. For the next 20 years, he unwrapped mummy after mummy, always to packed houses. One of his mummies was gilded from head to toe, including the genitals; another held an onion in its hand; still another was fake, made of sawdust, rags, a stick, and part of the backbone of a cat, all wrapped cleverly in bandages. In 1852 Pettigrew mummified the body of Alexander, Duke of Hamilton, as the duke had requested. The mummy was kept in an Egyptian sarcophagus in a mausoleum on the duke's estate.

Some of the most interesting discoveries about mummies have been made in the 20th century by scientists studying the bodies for evidence of disease. As far back as 1909, mummy tissue was dissected and showed evidence in the royal Egyptian families of smallpox, kidney disease, black lung, hardening of the arteries, and arthritis. In 1960, through x-ray examination of many wrapped mummies, orthodontist-scientist James E. Harris and archaeologist Kent R. Weeks confirmed those findings and reached a few of their own.

From their work, and that of other archaeologists and scientists, we now know that:

Sequenre Tao, of the 17th Dynasty, who may have been Nubian, died violently, perhaps of a scalp wound sustained in a war with a Hyksos king over a trumped-up complaint about noise made by the hippos of Thebes. His son, Ahmose I, was not circumcised, which gives rise to the conjecture that he may have been a hemophiliac. Ahmose's son, Amenhotep I, may also have been uncircumcised, though there is less conclusive evidence in his case; when his body was taken from its museum case, it smelled of the delphiniums which had been wrapped with it thousands of years before. Ahmose's grandmother, Tetisheri, whose mummy was beautified with false hair to hide her bald spot, had buckteeth, as did many of her descendants.

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