Egyptian mummies are a source of great interest even today, but their real heyday was during the Victorian times. People went mad for the new discovery of the tombs in Egypt, and parties would go out there to see if they could dig up a mummy of their own. The Victorians were not known for their fantastic preserving skills, and plenty of history has been lost to us as a result of their pillaging – and plenty of mummies were destroyed or lost as well.
We do know quite a bit about them now, and we are still learning new things from the scientific analysis of the mummies, their wrappings, and their tombs. For example, for many years it was believed that King Tutankhamun must have been murdered – after all, he was still only around 18 when he died. But in the years since his tomb was opened, better analysis tools have allowed us to understand that he was actually suffering from malaria and bone disease, as well as a broken leg. That makes it more likely that he died of natural causes.
One of the problems with mummies is that even though we are learning more about them, they aren’t getting any less creepy. They have long been a staple of Halloween costumes and horror films – and if you were a Scooby Doo fan as a kid then they have definitely been drilled into your subconscious as an emblem of fear. Here are 15 chilling facts about mummies that won’t make you any less afraid of them – sorry!
15. Victorians Had Unwrapping Parties
The Victorians really had what can only be described as a lack of tact. How else would you explain their unwrapping parties, which now seem to be in very poor taste? At such a party, the host would buy a mummy, freshly imported from an Egyptian tomb by some excavation or other. Then they would invite all of their guests for an evening of the most popular entertainment around. They would all unwrap it together for some truly ghoulish fun. The audience would be clapping and cheering as each strip of linen came away. The people of the time did not know, or perhaps did not care, how much damage would be done to the mummy as it came into contact with the open air for the first time. These irreplaceable artefacts were thus damaged and even completely destroyed. Imagine having a party to open a grave and dig up a skeleton – it’s beyond thinking about in modern times.
14. They Might Be Cursed
This one is obviously a matter of some debate. Some people, however, do believe that mummies may carry real curses with them. This is based on the fact that some of them had curses written inside their tombs as a warning to gravediggers and robbers. The curses could promise death and misfortune raining down on the heads of those who disturbed the dead.
One of the biggest reasons that people believe in curses is what happened after the opening of Tutankhamun’s tomb. Lord Carnarvon was an expedition sponsor who peered inside the tomb after it was opened, and he died a few weeks later from blood poisoning. Howard Carter, the archaeologist who opened the tomb, also experienced some misfortune and died 16 years later. But this is probably just coincidence. Another famous ‘curse’ – the mummy that sank the Titanic while being transported across the ocean – is simply untrue. Still, if curses do exist out there, I wouldn’t want to get too close to a mummy.
13. They Were Used For Paint
Ever looked at a painting and wondered whether it was painted with the remains of dead people? Well, of course you haven’t – that would be absurd. Except that some of them are. In the 16th and 17th centuries people looked at mummies and saw nothing more than a useful tool to be exploited in full. They would grind the mummies up into a fine powder, then mix it with white pitch and myrrh to create a rich brown pigment which was perfect for painting with.
The most notable users of this time of Mummy Brown paint were the Pre-Raphaelites, including Sir William Beechey and Martin Drolling. There is still a pigment called Mummy Brown today, although thankfully the ingredients have changed. These days it is composed of hematite and goethite which create the same kind of colour. But if you go to a gallery and see works by these artists, you will still be able to see the crushed mummy paint for yourself.
12. Realistic Paintings Of Mummies Exist
During the years of 1887 and 1889, a British archaeologist called W. M. Flinders made a startling discovery – or rather, thousands of them. He discovered an oasis region called Fayum around 150 miles south of Alexandria where a huge number of wooden panels had been painted in lifelike detail. They were called the Fayum Mummy Portraits, as each one of them was linked to a mummified body buried there.
The detail in the portraits is astonishing, as many of them appear to be flushed with life and ready to walk off the boards towards you. The painters used some incredible pigments such as the copper-based Egyptian blue and red to give the illusion of living flesh. There are 1,000 Fayum paintings in collections at the Louvre, the British Museum, and in Egypt’s museums. They give a startlingly realistic view of the mummies as they were when alive, which is chilling when you also view the bodies.
11. Europeans Used To Eat Mummies
Yes, you read that right. Not content with unwrapping them in front of baying crowds and using them for paint, our ancestors even went so far as to eat mummies. They were believed to be a source of medicine that would help to cure bruising, headaches, pain, nosebleeds, epilepsy, and more. This was during the 16th and 17th century, and was widely practiced in Europe.
The mummy was sold as ‘mummia’ and would be powdered to be added to drinks or applied to the skin. Human body fat and blood were also used as medicine, and the fresher they were, the better – except for the case of mummies, which were thought to have special qualities because of how well-preserved they were. It’s almost inconceivable to imagine a time when people would drink the powdered bones of a mummy in order to cure a headache. What headache could be bad enough to justify that?
10. There’s A Mummy With A Passport
Since we’ve started regarding mummies with a bit more respect, we tend to display them in museums as well as subjecting them to scientific analysis to find out more about them. One mummy who has experienced both is Ramesses II, who may well have been the most powerful pharaoh of all time. He ruled for six decades between 1279 and 1213 BC, before dying and being buried in the Valley of the Kings.
By 1974, his body was starting to deteriorate – a consequence of constant looting. Archaeologists decided to fly him to Paris for analysis, but in order to travel, he needed a passport. He was issued with an Egyptian passport which listed his occupation as “King (deceased)”. The examination found that his body was being attacked by fungus. After that was killed off, scientists found old battle wounds and fractures as well as evidence of arthritis and poor circulation.
9. There Are A Whole Lot Of Them – About 70 Million Or So…
One of the best things about creepy mummies is that you aren’t likely to run into them by accident. After all, there can’t be that many of them, right? Most people have probably only heard of King Tut, and there are only a handful more to name. Well, actually, that’s incorrect. We really only know about the famous mummies because they were pharaohs and people of historical importance. In truth, there were many people in Egyptian society who were mummified – basically, anyone rich enough to afford the process.
Research has led to the estimate that around 70 million people were mummified in Egypt. That’s not even counting all of the animals that were mummified alongside them, too – often cats, who were considered good sacred guides. There are also other cultures who practiced mummification, as well as some mummies which were formed by accident in the particular conditions required. Basically, mummies are everywhere.
8. They Were Positioned Very Carefully
When preparing the bodies for mummification, the priests performing the rituals would have sharp attention to detail. This was particularly important when dealing with the pharaohs, who were considered holy and would become gods after they had died. You can see some evidence of this in the very careful positioning of Tutankhamun. Much to the surprise of scientists, it was discovered that his appendage – yes, that appendage – was embalmed at a deliberate 90-degree angle. This permanent salute was supposed to make him look like the god Osiris, or so they believe. He was also painted with a black liquid, another attempt to make him look like he had the same skin as the god. All this must have been quite awkward for their priests, given that Tut was not particularly pretty: he had wide hips, a club foot, and buck teeth, according to the reconstruction created from his mummy.
7. Cats Were Mummified
Like we mentioned earlier, cats were sacred and were often turned into mummies. They’re actually even creepier than human mummies, if you can believe that. The cat was a serious pet, and when it died, the whole family was expected to shave their eyebrows off in mourning. Anyone who was responsible for the death of a cat was thrown into a poisonous snake pit. And there were whole cemeteries reserved for mummified cats. They would not be in there alone, but rather would be joined with a bowl of milk and some mummified mice that they could eat along the way.
Egyptians were one of the first civilizations to domesticate cats, and they really took to it. In 1888, a tomb was unearthed that contained 80,000 cat mummies. The poor guy who discovered it was just a farmer who stumbled on it by accident. Imagine how well he slept that night.
6. They Used A Lot Of Cloth
The classic image of a mummy is the trailing bandages flaring out behind it as it stumbles around. In fact, if you did have a reanimated mummy with loose bandages, even getting them caught in something wouldn’t be enough to stop it chasing you. When the bandages were all unwrapped, they could reach as far as 1.6km. This is because there were so many layers of bandages used to ensure that the body was wrapped as tightly as possible. The bandages were all stuck together with resin, though, so it’s somewhat unlikely that they would become loose without help. This is why we have to unwrap them deliberately before we can reach the mummy itself! After the process of wrapping up the mummy was finished, they would also be covered with one last layer – a cloth which featured a painting of the god Anubis to help them get into the afterlife.
5. They Were Buried With Servants
Many mummies of pharaohs or even very rich men were buried with models of their servants. These models would help them to get around in the afterlife. However, this practice of using models was not adopted from the very start. Instead, the early pharaohs would actually have their entire household of servants buried with them. Presumably, someone eventually realized that it was a bore to have to train up a whole new army of servants every time the king died. But those early servants really had it bad. They would be hit over the head and then put into the tomb before it was sealed. In most cases, the blow would be enough to kill them. But in all of the instances in which it was done, it seems unlikely that there was not at least one case where a servant awoke to find themselves buried alive in a tomb filled with dead servants, and a nasty head wound.
4. The Original Mummies Were Often Unearthed Accidentally
Where did the idea of mummifying people in the first place come from? The Egyptians wanted to preserve their dead so that they could walk in the afterlife in their original forms, but that’s not where the inspiration came from initially. Actually, they were inspired by the natural effects of their landscape. You see, Egypt is very dry, and digging in the desert is no fun at all. Early deaths were therefore buried in shallow graves in the sand. When the shifting winds moved the sand away from time to time, people would pop up out of the sand – fully preserved and recognizable. The hot and sterile sand produced a natural desiccation which kept the bodies intact. It was only when the kings wanted to be buried in coffins and tombs that they started to rot, leaving their priests to come up with a solution that was the best of both worlds.
3. Their Spirits Were Still Around
The Egyptians believed in something called the ‘ka’, a spirit which was eternally tied to the personality of the individual. When you died, it was the only thing that remained of who you were, and it needed to be tended to. Egyptian people would go to the tombs of their families and leave regular offerings for them, so that the ka could feast and live on. Often they would offer food, which would be “consumed” by the spirit, and then they could go ahead and eat it themselves. This just makes you think: if it’s true, then every time you go to see a mummy in a museum with a sandwich in your bag, the spirit must be eating your food too. Would you share a meal with the ghost of a long-dead Egyptian Pharaoh? The Egyptians loved to do so, turning it into an annual celebration called the ‘feast of the valley’ when everyone would spend the night in the tombs of their ancestors.
2. The Mummification Process Was Horrible
If you happened to not really be dead when the mummification process began – after all, Ancient Egyptian doctors were not as advanced as ours today – then you were in for a real torment. First of all your body would be washed using palm wine and water to purify you. Then the embalmer would cut carefully all along the side of your body, so that they could remove your internal organs. They would be placed in separate jars. The brain was also pulled out, through the nose: a long stick with a hook on the end would be inserted into your nostrils and would pull back out the same way. The only organ left behind was the heart as this was believed to be the essence of the person; King Tut’s was missing, which is believed to be linked to his cause of death. Then your body and organs were covered in natron, a salt that dried you out completely. For 40 days you would be left to dry, before being washed and oiled again – and then the process of wrapping began.
1. They Are Still Out There
Even though we have spent a lot of time in the past digging up Egyptian tombs and discovering the mummies inside, we still have not finished finding them all. Not everyone was buried in pyramids – as time went on, the fashion changed, and pharaohs favoured being buried in a private tomb with a more public monument erected elsewhere. Towards the end of the Egyptians’ domination, their rulers were buried in the northern area of the country, rather than their more traditional locations. As a result, we are missing many of the famous kings and queens of note. Perhaps the biggest missing tomb is that of Cleopatra. While we have found another woman by the same name, she was not the ruler who seduced Marc Anthony and Julius Caesar. There are likely to be many tombs and mummies still waiting to be unearthed, no doubt as part of an innocent building project which will mentally scar all those involved.