One of the archetypal monsters of Gothic fiction and film is ‘the mummy’. Arthur Conan-Doyle, the creator of Sherlock Holmes, wrote two stories about mummies in the 1890s. Lot 249 depicts a mummy as a monster, while in The Ring of Thoth the mummy is a sympathetic object of romance with the immortal Egyptian. Mummies, coffins and funerary goods have been a source of fascination since their discovery, but how were they made?
In order to preserve the body for eternal life it was embalmed and wrapped in linen sheets and/or bandages – mummified. The term mummy derives from the Persian or Arabic word ‘mumia’ which means ‘pitch’ or ‘bitumen’.
The most important phase in mummification was the desiccation of the body: to achieve this, it was placed for many days – Herodotus speaks of 70 days – into natron, a naturally occurring cleansing salt. For the same reason the soft inner parts and the brain were removed. There are no detailed ancient Egyptian records of mummification procedures; our knowledge of the practice depends on observations from surviving examples.
The individuals are converted from ‘mummified bodies’ (human beings who lived in one place and time) into ‘mummies’ – they are effectively dehumanised.
Egyptian mummies only survive because of the dry desert climate. There were limits to the success of the embalmers, even in periods when their art reached its peak. For example, bodies found in the wet Delta survive in skeletal condition, never as ‘full’ mummies, although at least some of them presumably had the same treatment as the mummies found in the deserts of Upper Egypt. Body parts have also been found desiccated – dried out – rather than mummified, like the head in the Petrie Museum.
The comic iZombie: Dead to the World features an Egyptian labourer, not mummified, but wrapped in linens who returns from the dead as an urbane Zombie.