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Unrolling Egyptian mummies in nineteenth-century Britain


The unrolling of Egyptian mummies was a popular spectacle in mid-nineteenth-century Britain. In hospitals, theatres, homes and learned institutions mummified bodies, brought from Egypt as souvenirs or curiosities, were opened and examined in front of rapt audiences. The scientific study of mummies emerged within the contexts of early nineteenth-century Egyptomania, particularly following the decipherment of hieroglyphics in 1822, and the changing attitudes towards medicine, anatomy and the corpse that led to the 1832 Anatomy Act. The best-known mummy unroller of this period was the surgeon and antiquary Thomas Pettigrew, author of the highly respected History of Egyptian Mummies. By examining the locations, audiences and formats of some of Pettigrew's unrollings this paper outlines a historical geography of mummy studies within the intellectual worlds of nineteenth-century Britain, illuminating the patterns of authority, respectability, place and performance that Pettigrew and his colleagues navigated with varying degrees of success.

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The British Journal for the History of Science
  • ISSN: 0007-0874
  • EISSN: 1474-001X
  • URL: /core/journals/british-journal-for-the-history-of-science
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