NOTE: Inevitably as this post discusses an exhibition about mummified people it includes references to them and images of them.
The reopened Manchester Museum is currently showing ‘Golden Mummies of Egypt’ in its brand new exhibition hall until the end of December this year (2023). The exhibition focuses on mummification in the Greco-Roman period, when the outside of mummified remains were highly decorated with heavily painted and gilded cartonnage and patterned bandages. The exhibition is free, but visitors are advised to book tickets in advance via the website. The museum is open from 10am Tuesday to Friday and Sunday (from 8am on Saturday) and closes at 5pm every day except Wednesday, when closing is 9pm.
The exhibition hall is off the central space of the museum, beyond the cafe, and is entered past the elegant red-granite column of Ramses II and Merneptah. Inside the exhibition is well laid-out with plenty of space to move about and read or review the exhibits. The lighting is low to protect the many beautifully coloured objects, but spotlights ensure everything that needs to be is fully visible. It is laid out across 4 areas, taking us from the multi-cultural social context of the Greco-Roman period in Egypt (c. 300 B.C. until c. 400 AD) to the colonial context in which mummified Egyptians ended up in Manchester and how they were received.
The first section of the exhibition covers the socio-cultural context of the Greco-Roman period in Egypt, precisely locating the exhibition in a specific period and political, social and cultural context. A timeline provides historical context and various texts from the period introduce the range of activities taking place in this literate society. We are introduced to the syncrestic tendencies of art and religion in this period, where ancient Egyptian and Greco-Roman traditions merged and blended. The first mummified ancient Egyptian we meet in the exhibition, Artemidorous, is a good example of this. He sports gilded images of Egyptian gods, depicted in a partly Egyptian, partly Greek style on his front. His face is covered by an encaustic painting of him, of the type known as ‘Faiyum portraits‘, rather than a traditional mask, and his name is written in Greek.
Becoming a god
As we move through to the second section of the exhibition we learn more about funerary beliefs of the period, with a particular focus on the roll of mumification in transforming the deceased into a god. This is a key theme of the exhibition, and the one that has been most keenly picked up in the press and public debate. As often happens, the public debate has rather over-simplified the more nuanced and period-specific ideas of the exhibition. Headlines like the BBC’s ‘Have we got Ancient Egypt’s mummies all wrong?’ might drive clicks, but they imply a casual dismissal of all previous understanding that is not merited by the content of the thoughtful and nuanced information panels in the exhibition, and accompanying book.
Nevertheless, it is high time we took a different view of mummified ancient Egyptians. While the press and public are shocked by the idea that mummification is not just about preservation of the body, there is considerable evidence for this from multiple periods of Egyptian history. In ancient Egyptian thought, the soul of the deceased both became a semi-divine being and required a physical receptable, such as a statue, image, or mummified body. Statues, whether of gods or mortals, and mummified bodies both required the ‘opening of the mouth‘ ritual to ‘activate’ them as receptables for the indwelling spirit, and make it possible for the inhabitant to access sustenance, light, and air, and make use of their senses.
The association between statue, divinity and the mummified was enhanced by their painting and decoration. As the exhibition reminds us ‘Egyptian deities were said to have flesh of untarnishable gold and hair of semi-precious lapis lazuli stone’ while other precious stones and minerals could be associated with the divine body. Cult statues were created using these same precious metals and minerals, and lesser statues were painted in the appropriate colours. In the same way, Egyptians would have their mummified bodies gilded and adorned with precious stones or painted in appropriate colours, to mimic the divine flesh of cult statues, and the gods who inhabited them. From at least the New Kingdom, the complete mummified and coffined body would be stood up outside the tomb, just like a statue, for the Opening of the Mouth and other rituals. The mummified ancient Egyptian isn’t therefore just the preserved corpse within the wrappings, but the entirety of corpse, wrappings, mask, and coffins. This complete and finished entity, called a sah in ancient Egyptian, was ready to house and sustain its former owner’s spirit, much like a divine statue.
The third section of the exhibition considers the Faiyum portraits in particular. This was a beautifully laid out section (image above), with various portrait panels around two walls, with information about each alongside it. A complete sah with his portrait panel still attached was in the centre (image below right) demonstrating how these portraits were incorporated into the wrappings.
The subject of much research over many generations, encaustic portrait panels of the deceased in life are a striking variation on the traditional face mask. Their beauty, realism, and individualism are always a hit with visitors, a clear reminder that the people inside the wrappings were human beings.
Unfortunately, their very familiarity and obvious relationship with Greek and Roman artistic traditions has provoked a variety of interpretations, ranging from outright racism to simply superficial. At one end of the scale, their realism can provoke trite comments about how these were ‘people just like us’. In some ways they were, but in other ways this is a very different society. These oh-so-familiar, ‘modern-looking’ faces were attached to carefully wrapped and decorated human corpses that may have stood in someone’s house for years or generations, during which they were venerated as the receptacles of living demi-gods requiring food and drink offerings, and perhaps decoration on special days.
At the other end of the scale are Petrie’s attempts to racially classify the Faiyum portraits as ‘Greek’ settlers rather than ‘Egyptians’, meaningless categories that owe their existence to the racism of the early 20th century rather than to any physical differences. The people in the portraits are almost all shown in Greco-Roman dress of the upper classes, but they were mummified according to Egyptian practice. Beyond this, we have no idea what language(s) they spoke, whether they preferred Greek, Egyptian, or syncretic modes of religious ritual, or how they conceived of their ethnic identity.
The fourth and final part of the exhibition looks at ‘reception’, the colonial history of Egypt, how mummified Egyptians came to be in Manchester, and the responses they evoked from racist pseudo-science to ‘The Picture of Dorian Grey’. The last room also contains an area with various interactive activities for children. I wasn’t able to get a review from the target age group, but they looked like they would appeal to many ages.
I visited the exhibition on 4 April 2023. In some respects, its subject isn’t particularly attractive to me. I don’t particularly like mummified people or animals (as I mentioned in this previous post) and my research focuses on earlier periods than those represented in ‘Golden Mummies’. The public and press reaction to the exhibition is proof of how badly we need to present a more complex and nuanced understanding of mummified ancient Egyptians to the world. While the exhibition’s central concept – that mummification is about creating a suitable receptacle for a semi-divine ancient Egyptian soul – probably won’t come as a surprise to many Egyptologists, it clearly surprised both the press and public to learn that mummification isn’t just about preserving the body. This focus on the ancient Egyptian view of the mummified is refreshing.
Despite this ‘Golden Mummies‘ has drawn some criticism on social media. The title is deliberately provocative, drawing on the human interest with gold, evoking orientalist imagery of treasure caves, and the long-standing fascination with mummified ancient Egyptians. It is nevertheless appropriate. In ancient Egyptian thought, gold is the substance of divine flesh. When mummified and gilded an ancient Egyptian passes from a mere corpse to a receptacle for divinity. Other criticism has focussed on the general colonial context for Egyptology in general. There are certainly lots of valid criticisms of Egyptology along these lines, but they are far larger than a single exhibition.
Overall, this is a very interesting exhibition that challenges our attitudes toward mummified ancient Egyptians. This is not a bio-anthropological exhibition. The mummified people are decently wrapped with relevant cartonnage masks and foot cases in place, surrounded by their coffins where appropriate. There are no palaeopathological or medical details (although earlier forms of the exhibition in other countries did include this material and it is also presented separately in the exhibition catalogue). Presentations on what is inside are limited to inclusions in the wrappings, such as amulets. We are not privy to the details of the embalmed body. The focus is on the mummified remains as a complete and finished sah.
For the ancient Egyptian word ‘sah‘ see “sꜥḥ” (Lemma ID 129130) https://thesaurus-linguae-aegyptiae.de/lemma/129130, edited by Altägyptisches Wörterbuch, with contributions by Lisa Seelau, in: Thesaurus Linguae Aegyptiae, Corpus issue 17, Web app version 2.01, 12/15/2022, ed. by Tonio Sebastian Richter & Daniel A. Werning by order of the Berlin-Brandenburgische Akademie der Wissenschaften and Hans-Werner Fischer-Elfert & Peter Dils by order of the Sächsische Akademie der Wissenschaften zu Leipzig (accessed: 4/24/2023)
For more on racism in early 20th century Egyptology see Sheppard, Kathleen, 2011. Flinders Petrie and Eugenics at UCL. Bulletin of the History of Archaeology 20(1): 16-29. DOI: 10.5334/bha.20103; Challis, Debbie, 2013. The Archaeology of Race: The Eugenic Ideas of Francis Galton and Flinders Petrie. New York/London: Bloomsbury Academic.
The accompanying exhibition catalogue contains a much fuller treatment of the exhibition themes, including the colonial context for the collection, Greco-Roman society in Egypt, bioanthropological details, the excavations at Hawara where so many of the mummified people were found, and the varied ways they were recieved in England; Price, Campbell, 2020. Golden Mummies of Egypt: Interpreting Identities from the Graeco-Roman Period. Manchester: Manchester University Press.
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Egyptian Artefacts in the Southend Museum
Wunderkammer: Southend’s Cabinet of Curiosities