Essay & Poem: Mummies

Oct 26, 2018

95 years ago, the tomb of Egyptian pharaoh King Tutankhamun was unearthed. It had been closed since 1352 BCE and its discovery kicked off a world wide interest in mummies that continues to today. Lake Effect essayist Richard Hedderman says there are good reasons we’re fascinated with them.

It was a Friday evening, and I was working a family event at the Milwaukee Public Museum where I’m the Education Programs Coordinator. Visitors were there to enjoy the museum and spend the night camping out on the exhibit floors. A small boy, maybe about six years old, walked up to me trailing his parents. His face reflected intense concern. He wanted to know if he could ask me a question. “Shoot,” I told him. “Are the mummies scary when they come alive at night?” he asked. “No,” I replied, “they’re not scary at all.”

Tutankhamun's death mask.
Credit Roland Unger / Wikimedia

Now I suspect that most of you would have stopped right there. But no; I saw an opportunity, and I wasn’t about to let it escape me. I continued to elaborate spectacularly on the subject. “They’re not scary at all,” I repeated, “they’re just loud.” The boy gulped, and his face turned the color of yesterday’s oatmeal. “You see,” I went on, “they’re really just looking for companionship. They’ve become so deprived of human connection after centuries in the tomb that they’re starved for company, and just looking for a little conversation. So, they’ll carry on moaning and groaning, trying to get your attention. They might follow you around for awhile, they might even tap you on the shoulder or wake you up in the middle of the night and try to get you play checkers or something, but no, they’re not scary.” By now, he looked like he’d just shaken hands with Jack the Ripper.

I spend a good deal of my time at the Museum around our two Egyptian mummies, and teach quite a lot of programming focused on them. Outside of Chicago, the Public Museum is one of the few venues in this region of the country where you can see real mummies, face to face.

And over the years, our visitors—young and old—have found that them to be a source of intense curiosity. And this is not surprising. Since the beginning, mummies have been objects of fascination and considerable misadventure.

Ancient people all over the globe mummified their dead. In fact, the Egyptians were not even the first to make mummies. That was likely the Chinchorro people of what we now know as Chile and Peru. They were mummifying their dead in the dry air of the coastal desert about three thousand years before the Egyptians even thought about it.

Head of a Chinchorro mummy.
Credit Pablo Trincado / Wikimedia

So, why haven’t we heard more about South American mummies? We all have the image in our heads of a kid wrapped in toilet paper stumbling around and trick-or-treating at Halloween. But I’d bet none of us have ever seen a kid dressed for Halloween as a Chinchorro mummy. That’s because of all the ancient cultures that mummified their dead, the Egyptians were the virtuosos, and a well-preserved mummy from ancient Egypt is a master-work of the form.

Napoleon knew this, and sent mummies back to France during his disastrous military campaign in Egypt in the late 18th century, generating our modern interest in them. By the mid 19th century, mummies were trending. Very much a thing to have if you wished to project an air of cultural adventurism, many well-to-do Europeans brought mummies back from Egypt or sent for them. It was common to hold “unrollings,” as they were called, where guests were invited to watch as the mummy was unwrapped—or “unrolled”—just out of curiosity, just to see what they looked like under the bandages.

Fortunately, this practice—intriguing as it may have been—has long been discontinued, as it’s particularly destructive to the mummy. Once unwrapped, a mummy may never again be wrapped back up in the same way, and thus a great deal of its anthropological content is lost.

A source of enduring mystery, mummies have long been thought to bear a powerful life force. Since at least the Middle Ages, apothecaries ground mummies into powder which, added to various concoctions, were cheerfully peddled as miracle cures well into the 19th century. A kind of snake oil, if you will, it may have made up in morbid curiosity what it utterly lacked in potency. It was, of course, useless.

"Interior of a Kitchen," by Martin Drolling.
Credit Martin Drolling / Wikimedia

Somewhere along the way, someone began using powdered mummies as pigment, making a shade of paint called, “mummy brown.” Upon learning that he was painting with the remains of ancient Egyptians, Pre-Raphaelite painter, Edward Burnes-Jones, felt terrible and insisted on giving his tubes of mummy brown a decent burial in his backyard. One London colorman claimed that he could satisfy the demands of his customers for twenty years from one Egyptian mummy. If you ever want to see mummy brown paint in action, so to speak, take a look at Martin Drolling’s painting, Interior of a Kitchen. It’s loaded with it.

This November 4th is the 95th anniversary of the discovery of the tomb of the most famous mummy in history, King Tutankhamun. Discovered by British archaeologist, Howard Carter, in 1922, it was the first tomb of an ancient Egyptian royal found in modern times intact, meaning that all the stuff interred with the pharaoh in 1352 BCE—over eight thousand individual objects—was still in there when Carter and his team opened it. If mummies hadn’t already been popular by then, they would have gotten popular very quickly. Tut’s mummy has enjoyed a rather spirited second life, and has generated an entire subculture He’s been a sensation ever since.

Once, when we were moving one of our mummies to the Museum’s conservation lab, I got nose-to-nose with him just for the experience, just to get nose-to-nose with somebody who lived and died in Egypt over two thousand years ago. The smell was faintly musty like the inside of an old steamer trunk maybe. It was the scent of mummy dust, the smell of eternity.

Actually, I was wrong when I told that kid that mummies are loud. They’re not; they are, let’s be clear, absolutely dead quiet which, of course, makes them enduring and utterly fascinating.

Howard Carter opens the innermost shrine of King Tutankhamen's tomb near Luxor, Egypt.
Credit New York Times photo archive / Wikimedia

Poem: Mummes -- Milwaukee Public Museum

When children ask if it’s frightening
when they come alive, I tell them yes,
of course it is, it’s absolutely terrifying,
and believe me, you don’t want to be around

when it happens, especially at night.
When they ask if the mummies walk
with their arms outstretched like mummies
in the movies, I tell them no, it’s nothing

like that. You see, I explain, the muscles
of their arms have atrophied from thousands
of years of disuse; they just can’t walk
around the way mummies do in movies.

In fact, I explain, their feet have been so
lovingly and carefully bound by strips
of linen, that it’s difficult for them
to walk at all which explains the halting

gait, the fear that at any moment they will stumble
and pitch forward, landing in a heap of rags.
Can they talk? No, they can’t talk, not after
all those years in tombs choked with the dust

of centuries and the weight of eternity
upon them. Can they see, they want to know.
Not any more, I say, for their eyes
were replaced with onions or stones,

stones as white as the sun. Finally, I explain,
they long only to wander forth as they used to,
so long ago and once again admire their reflections
in the shimmering Nile of the gallery floor.