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Thursday 9 May 2013

Guest Post: Unveiling mummies

The Egypt Centre Bandage (EC951)

(Image courtesy of the Egypt Centre, Swansea) 

This is  guest post by Beverley Rogers who has studied the item. Enjoy. Thank you Beverley.

In the downstairs gallery of Swansea’s Egypt Centre, amongst the coffin fragments, mummy masks, intricate bead work and an elaborate decorated mummy of an infant, there is displayed an innocuous piece of bandage mounted onto cardboard. Measuring 18.5 cm in length at its longest part and 9.5 cm in width, it is not the most beautiful or impressive of items that the Egypt Centre has to offer its visitors to look at. But behind this brown, stained piece of linen, there is a story that stands testament to an unusual piece of social history. It is evidence of a fashion undertaken during the Victorian period - one of which today may appear unusual and even abhorrent to our modern ears -where Egyptian mummies were unwrapped before public audiences in a form of macabre entertainment under the guise of scientific endeavour.

The bandage was once part of the Wellcome Collection, a diverse and eclectic mixture of objects brought together by the American businessman, Sir Henry Wellcome (1853-1936), who made his fortune by developing a multinational pharmaceutical company. Wellcome’s collecting originally focused on pieces that illustrated the development of medicine and medical science. Such was his passion for collecting however, that he then branched out to collect all manner of object themes. Egyptian antiquity was just one part of a huge collection, which at its peak is estimated to have contained five times more items than the Louvre. Some of the objects obtained by Wellcome came from his own excavations in Egypt; the majority, however, were acquired from other private collections via auction houses and sales. His appetite for purchasing huge numbers of objects, often in an indiscriminate manner, was legendary amongst the auctions houses. Such was the quantity and ferocity of his collecting, that on his death, many objects lay still boxed in their original auction packing cases, not having been opened from the date of his purchase. When the Wellcome Trustees distributed Wellcome’s vast collection in the 1970s to various museums and institutions, the Egypt Centre took charge of ninety-two boxes of Egyptian antiquities as part of a long-term loan from the Trustees. The bandage formed a tiny part of the loan.

The piece of linen (acquisition number EC951) is displayed in the Egypt Centre’s House of Death and is mounted on a piece of card with an accompanying label stating:

The Palmer Collection
Mummy Cloth
Unwound at Lordship Lane Hall, about the year 1896
Egypt No. 888

The owner of the ‘Palmer Collection’ is at the present time uncertain as no suitable candidate has been identified from the Wellcome archives. In 2005 the Egypt Centre attributed a previous owner of the bandage as being the Reverend William MacGregor (1848-1922) and Wellcome is known to have bought many items from the sale of the MacGregor Collection in 1922 (the Egypt Centre now believes the attribution to be a cataloguing mistake). An extensive search of the MacGregor Catalogue of Egyptian Antiquities produced for the MacGregor Collection’s auction at Sotheby’s, makes no mention however of the bandage in the featured lots. MacGregor’s propensity for recording details of his objects’ provenance, coupled with Sotheby’s diligent recording of these facts obtained through MacGregor’s own records, leads me to believe that the bandage is not from his collection but instead acquired from another unknown sale. Whilst the lack of information regarding its previous ownership remains frustrating, the bandage’s more modern history is still a valuable source of evidence of the strange world of mummy unwrappings which gripped the middle of the nineteenth century in Britain.

The practice of unwrapping a mummy was a phenomenon mostly confined to the 19th century, however the earliest recorded unwrapping can be dated to as early as 1698 where Benoît de Maillet (1656-1738), Louis XIV’s Consul in Cairo, unwrapped a mummy in front of a select group of tourists. Scattered references to mummy unwrappings are mentioned throughout the 18th century, but it was really from the 1830s onwards that the desire to unwrap ancient Egyptian cadavers became popular in conjunction with a ready supply of mummy imports finding their way into Britain. These exotic souvenirs of the extended Grand Tour, which by this time included Egypt in its itinerary, found their way into Victorian parlours, studies and sitting rooms.

Early nineteenth century unwrappings, though somewhat lacking in analytical method, were first conducted in a spirit of scientific enquiry with a minimum of general public involvement. In the 1830s however, the process became more of a public spectacle, fuelled by an event organised by Giovanni Belzoni. Belzoni, a showman turned purveyor of Egyptian antiquities, encouraged members of the public to view the unwrapping of a mummy as part of a London exhibition of Egyptian antiquities, tomb replicas and facsimiles acquired during his time in Egypt. The show, held at the Egyptian Hall in Piccadilly, proved to be enormously popular, attracting many visitors. One member of the audience, a London surgeon by the name of Thomas Pettigrew, became inspired to perform his own public unrollings, which he often accompanied with a lecture. Tickets sold out quickly and distinguished guests, dignitaries and medical professionals would attend the viewings, alongside members of the public who were lucky enough to gain entry. Both Belzoni and Pettigrew had a talent for showmanship and the mummy unwrappings became in essence a ‘performance’ where the mummy was the central passive actor. Whilst there were some attempts at serious study - Pettigrew for example published his findings and wrote some seminal works on the methods of mummification - the unrolling of the mummy from its wrappings was no doubt attended by many people more for the spectacle of the event than from any attempt at serious learning on their part.

As travel to Egypt intensified within the middle of the century, ancient Egypt became even more in vogue. A ready supply of mummies and mummy body parts taken out of Egypt as souvenirs, combined with the increased press coverage of Belzonni and then Pettigrew’s unwrapping events, encouraged members of the public to emulate dissection of the mummies they had acquired within their own homes. Unwrapping a mummy became a popular dinner party activity where guests were invited to a sumptuous meal followed by the unrolling of the ancient ‘guest’. Often the mummy came from the host’s own collection and invitations were such as those issued by Lord Londesborough in 1850, who promised ‘A Mummy from Thebes to be unrolled at half-past Two'.

Toward the latter half of the century, examination of mummies became conducted on a more methodical basis. Egyptology was developing as a discipline and recognition that mummies were a source of important historical information encouraged better recording and care. The thrill of a body being unveiled however was still a heady draw for audiences and these events continued to evoke large crowds albeit the premise of the occasion was now on a more scientific footing. A common element of mummy unwrappings was the giving of pieces of linen and bandage from the mummy as souvenirs to the audience. The mounted bandage at the Egypt Centre is an example of such a memento, which at the time of unwrapping would still retain the faint scent of the unguents and spices used to mummify the body.

The Egypt Centre’s bandage is labelled as coming from an unwrapping held ‘about the year 1896’. The approximation of the date suggests that it was mounted much later after the event, implying that the exact date had been forgotten or was unknown. The label also mentions the unwrapping took place at Lordship Lane Hall but no such hall exists today. It has however been possible to trace the exact date and venue for the unwrapping due to a detailed eyewitness account of the event in The Horniman Free Museum Seventh Annual Report of 1897.

The mummy unwrapping took place on Wednesday 24th February 1897 – a year later than the label suggests -and the venue was St Thomas Moore Hall, which was – and still remains – at 116 Lordship Lane, East Dulwich, London SE22. The Annual Report states that it was conducted by Mr Henry William Mengedoht (1870 – 1939), before an audience consisting of members of the Dulwich Scientific and Literary Association. Mengedoht was an English Orientalist who had studied within the department of Egyptology and Assyriology at the British Museum. On this particular evening Mengedoht gave a lecture culminating in the unwrapping of a female mummy from Memphis, generously donated by Mr Frederick John Horniman, M.P., from his collection of artifacts held at the nearby Horniman Museum. The mummy had been bought that year, together with its coffin, in Cairo where Horniman had paid £21 for them. As part of the evening’s event, Mr Horniman, a trader in tea, collector, public benefactor and a member of the Egypt Exploration Fund’s Committee, had also arranged for a selection of other ancient Egyptian objects from the museum to be on show. The Annual Report provides details of the evening’s activities:

On 24 February 1897, Horniman presided at a lecture, ‘Mummies and their History’, at the Dulwich Scientific and Literary Association. The guest speaker, Professor H.W. Mengedoht, from the British Museum, began by giving a graphic account of the different methods of embalming and explained how such practices had varied at different periods. He illustrated his paper by unrolling, with the help of Quick, a mummy from the Horniman Museum collection. In a scene redolent of the public dissection of corpses in the sixteenth century anatomy theatres.

The body, removed by Mengedoht from a coffin of painted sycamore, was placed on a table before the audience. The lid of the coffin, inscribed with the name Peta-Amen-Neb-Nest-Taiu, was identified as a priestess of Amen-Ra and daughter of an officer of high rank at Thebes. The body was covered in a shroud like garment and secured to the body with diagonal patterned strips of linen. Small in stature, the woman measured approximately five foot in length. After examining the wrapped mummy for signs of inscriptions or amulets and finding none, Mengedoht set about freeing the mummy from her numerous bandages with the assistance of a gentleman called Mr Quick. As he proceeded, he talked to the assembled guests about what he was discovering. Fortunately the bandages came away easily and Mengedoht did not have to resort to a method used on one of his previous unwrappings where he had removed both legs with a chopper.

The bandages were numerous and of different texture, applied with great neatness and precision. The limbs were separately bandaged. On the ends of two of the bandages some hieroglyphical characters were found, bearing reference to the date of the operation, etc…The bandages being removed the body was exposed. The brain had been extracted through the nostrils, and the viscera from the abdomen by an incision in the left side, and returned into the cavity, which was filled with the dust of some bitter wood. The nails on both the hands and feet were perfect, and had been stained with hennah. No scarabaei or other ornaments were found.

Mengedoht’s conclusions from his examination was that the female mummy was between 60 and 70 years of age, that it was from Memphis and it dated from about 1500 B.C. He also told the audience that she was a ‘daughter of an officer of high rank at Thebes (whose mummy is now in the British Museum).’

The exposure of the body caused much excitement and the audience was invited to inspect it. Thanks were offered to Mengedoht ‘for the treat he had offered them that night” and finally “Mr Horniman gave to each of the visitors present a small sample of the mummy cloth, as a souvenir of the occasion. The Egypt Centre bandage was one of these souvenirs. The Horniman Museum also has a small box of mummy linen fragments which also came from this unwrapping.

The mummy’s immediate fate after the unwrapping was to reside, devoid of her bandages, on display at the Horniman Museum within the Egyptian room together with six other mummies. A guide dated 1904 from the Museum indicates that the coffin and mummy were still displayed for several years later. Today the coffin lid is currently on display in the Horniman Museum’s African World’s gallery whilst the coffin and mummy are at its Study Collections Centre (accession numbers 4510a-c). A little part of Peta-Amen-Neb-Nest’s story however found itself travelling to Wales. The small piece of linen stands testament to the fate of a large amount of Egyptian mummies found in the Victorian period. The body of Peta-Amen-Neb-Nest was in fact one of the lucky ones, for many mummies were destroyed upon their unwrapping or found themselves being thrown away as rubbish. The names and personal histories of these unlucky ones will never be remembered. Peta-Amen-Neb-Nes however finds herself immortalized as part of British Victorian history and as an interesting and unusual element in the history of Egyptology.

(Image of the Egyptian mummy coffin belonging to Peta-Amen-Neb-Nest-Taiu from Levell (2000), 256).

About the author
Beverley Rogers is in the final year of her PhD at Swansea University, Wales. She has been researching the Reverend William MacGregor (1848 – 1937) - an Egyptologist and collector of Egyptian antiquity – since 2005. Other areas of her research include the rise of Egyptology in the Victorian period, the collectors and collecting habits of the Victorian period, the history of museum collections and the modern reception of ancient Egypt.


Dawson, W. R. & Uphill, E. (1972). Who was who in Egyptology. London: Egypt Exploration Society.

Forest Hill and Sydenham Examiner (26 February 1897).

Horniman Museum (2010). Ancient Egyptian learning pack. Accessed via http://www.horniman.ac.uk/schools/pdf/lp_ancient_egypt.pdf

Horniman Museum (1904). A Guide to the Collections of the Horniman Museum and Library. London: London County Council.

Ikram, S. & Dodson, A. (1998). The Mummy in Ancient Egypt. London: Thames & Hudson Ltd.

Montserrat, D. (1998). ‘Unidentified Human Remains: Mummies and the Erotics of Biography” in D. Montserrat, ed., Changing Bodies, Changing Meanings: Studies on the Human Body in Antiquity, pp. 162-212. London: Routledge.

Quick (1898). The Horniman Free Museum Seventh Annual Report 1897 Events of the Year. London: Horniman Museum.

Levell, N. (2000). Oriental Visions: Exhibitions, Travel, and Collecting in the Victorian Age. London: Horniman Musuem and Gardens and the Museu Antropológico da Universidade de Coimbra.

Rogers, B. (2012). Unwrapping the Past: Egyptian Mummies on Show in Popular Exhibitions, Science and Showmanship, 1840-1910 Ed. J. Kember, J. Olunkette and J.A. Sullivan, 199-218.

My thanks to Robert Storrie of the Horniman Museum for providing me with archive information regarding the mummy and coffin. Thank you also to the Egypt Centre for access to the object file and allowing me to take photographs of the object.

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