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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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1 Pettigrew Thomas Joseph, A History of Egyptian Mummies and an Account of the Worship and Embalming of the Sacred Animals by the Egyptians; with Remarks on the Funeral Ceremonies of Different Nations and Observations on the Mummies of the Canary Islands, of the Ancient Peruvians, Burman Priests, &c., London: Longman, Rees, Orme, Brown, Green, and Longman, 1834.

2 ‘Literary and learned’, Literary Gazette, 10 June 1848, p. 394.

3 Dunkin Alfred John, Report of the Transactions and Excursions of the British Archaeological Association at Their First Congress, at Canterbury, MDXXXXLIV &c &c., London: John Russell Smith, 1844, p. 351.

4 ‘Egyptian mummies’, Chambers's Edinburgh Journal (1834) 118, pp. 110–111.

5 ‘Literary and learned’, op. cit. (2), p. 394.

6 Sawday Jonathan, The Body Emblazoned: Dissection and the Human Body in Renaissance Culture, London: Routledge, 1995.

7 David M. Wetherall, ‘The British Archaeological Association: its foundation and split’, unpublished MA thesis, University of Durham, 1991.

8 Shapin Steven, ‘The house of experiment in seventeenth-century England’, Isis (1988) 79, pp. 373404, 373.

9 Livingston David, Putting Science in Its Place: Geographies of Scientific Knowledge, Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2003, pp. 8586.

10 Livingstone, op. cit. (9), p. 85; Lightman Bernard, Victorian Popularizers of Science: Designing Nature for New Audiences, Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2007, p. 17.

11 Schaffer Simon, ‘Natural philosophy and public spectacle in the eighteenth century’, History of Science (1983) 21, pp. 151, 1.

12 Morus Iwan Rhys, ‘Seeing and believing science’, Isis (2006) 97, pp. 101110, 102.

13 Buck-Morss Susan, ‘Dream world of mass culture: Walter Benjamin's theory of modernity and the dialectics of seeing’, in Levin David M. (ed.), Modernity and the Hegemony of Vision, Berkeley: University of California Press, 1993, pp. 309338; Crary Jonathan, Techniques of the Observer: On Vision and Modernity in the Nineteenth Century, Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1992; Pomata Gianna, ‘Observation rising: birth of an epistemic genre, 1500–1650’, in Daston Lorraine and Lunbeck Elizabeth (eds.), Histories of Scientific Observation, Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2011, pp. 4580, 54.

14 Day Jasmine, The Mummy's Curse: Mummymania in the English-Speaking World, London: Routledge, 2006.

15 David Rosalie, ‘Egyptian mummies: an overview’, in David (ed.), Egyptian Mummies and Modern Science, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2008, pp. 1018.

16 Pettigrew, op. cit. (1); Wilkinson John Gardner, A Popular Account of the Ancient Egyptians, vol. 2, London: John Murray, 1878.

17 David Rosalie, ‘Early investigations of mummies’, in David Rosalie and Tapp Edmund (eds.), The Mummy's Tale: The Scientific and Medical Investigation of Natsef-Amun, Priest of the Temple at Karnak, London: Michael O'Mara, 1992, pp. 1119, 11; Chalmers Gordon K., ‘Hieroglyphs and Sir Thomas Browne’, Virginia Quarterly Review (1935) 11, pp. 547560.

18 Dannenfeldt Karl H., ‘Egypt and Egyptian antiquities in the Renaissance’, Studies in the Renaissance (1959) 6, pp. 727, 19.

19 Kipling Rudyard, Something of Myself for My Friends Known and Unknown, London: Macmillan, 1937, p. 13.

20 Findlen Paula, Possessing Nature: Museums, Collecting, and Scientific Culture in Early Modern Italy, Berkeley: University of California Press, 1994; Findlen (ed.), Athanasius Kircher: The Last Man Who Knew Everything, London: Routledge, 2004.

21 Dannenfeldt, op. cit. (18), p. 22.

22 Findlen, Possessing Nature, op. cit. (20), p. 221, original emphasis.

23 Steele Richard, ‘From my own apartment, August 25th. By Isaac Bickerstaff Esq.’, The Tatler (1710), p. 216.

24 Babraj Krzysztof, ‘The ethics of research on mummified human remains’, in Szymańska Hanna and Babraj Krzysztof (eds.), Mummy: Results of an Interdisciplinary Examination of the Egyptian Mummy of Aset-iri-khet-es from the Archaeological Museum in Cracow, Cracow: Polish Academy of Arts and Sciences, 2001, pp. 1121; Gryphius Andreas, Mumiae Wratislavienses, Wratislaviae: Viti Jacobi Drescheri, 1662.

25 Middleton Conyers, Germana Quaedam Antiquitatis Eruditae Monumenta: Quibus Romanorum Veterum Ritus Varii Tam Sacri Quam Profani, Tum Graecorum Atque Aegyptiorum Nonnulli, London: R. Manby & H.S. Cox, 1745.

26 Hadley John, ‘An account of a mummy, inspected at London 1763’, Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society (1764) 54, pp. 114.

27 Blumenbach John Frederick, ‘Observations on some Egyptian mummies opened in London’, Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society (1794) 84, pp. 177195, 177.

28 Granville Augustus Bozzi, ‘An essay on Egyptian mummies: with observations on the art of embalming among Ancient Egyptians’, Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society (1825) 115, pp. 269316, 279.

29 Granville, op. cit. (28), p. 298.

30 Donoghue Helen D., Lee Oona Y.-C., Minnikin David E., Besra Gurdyal S., Taylor John H. and Spigelman Mark, ‘Tuberculosis in Dr Granville's mummy: a molecular re-examination of the earliest known Egyptian mummy to be scientifically examined and given a medical diagnosis’, Proceedings of the Royal Society B (2010) 277, pp. 5156.

31 Moser Stephanie, Wondrous Curiosities: Ancient Egypt at the British Museum, Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2006.

32 Mayes Stanley, The Great Belzoni, London: Putnam, 1959, p. 260.

33 Wortham David John, The Genesis of British Egyptology 1549–1906, Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1971, p. 60.

34 Manley Deborah and Rée Peta, Henry Salt: Artist, Traveller, Diplomat, Egyptologist, London: Libri, 2001.

35 Dawson Warren, ‘Anastasi, Sallier and Harris and their papyri’, Journal of Egyptian Archaeology (1949) 35, pp. 158166, 161.

36 Edward William Lane to Thomas Joseph Pettigrew, 12 May 1838, British Library Additional Manuscripts (subsequently BL), 56230, 3.

37 Thompson Jason, Sir Gardner Wilkinson and His Circle, Austin: University of Texas Press, 1992.

38 John Gardner Wilkinson to Thomas Joseph Pettigrew, n.d., BL 56230, 205.

39 Morus Iwan Rhys, ‘Placing performance’, Isis (2010) 101, pp. 775778.

40 Shapin Steven, Never Pure: Historical Studies of Science as if It Was Produced by People with Bodies, Situated in Time, Space, Culture, and Society, and Struggling for Credibility and Authority, Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2010, p. iii.

41 Dawson's study of Pettigrew is for the most part descriptive, characterized by a diligence in research and a near-total lack of critical reflection on any aspect of the work. While I do not wish to denigrate Dawson's efforts in the study of Egyptology, mummification, the life and work of Pettigrew or any other aspect of his work, his notebooks demonstrate that he was clearly aware of the many problematic aspects of Pettigrew's character, and must have chosen to omit them from his study.

42 Aufderheide Arthur, The Scientific Study of Mummies, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003; Brier Bob, Egyptian Mummies: Unravelling the Secrets of an Ancient Art, London: Michael O'Mara Books, 1996, pp. 158166.

43 Wetherall, op. cit. (7); Evans Joan, A History of the Society of Antiquaries, Oxford: Society of Antiquaries of London, 1956, p. 254; Hall Marie Boas, All Scientists Now: The Royal Society in the Nineteenth Century, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1984, pp. 5254; Minney R.J., The Two Pillars of Charing Cross: The Story of a Famous Hospital, London: Cassell, 1967; Morrell Jack and Thackray Arnold, Gentlemen of Science: Early Years of the British Association for the Advancement of Science, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1981, p. 56.

44 Francis Palgrave to Dawson Turner, 20 June 1845, BL 56288, 251.

45 Hugo Thomas, A Letter to the Late Members of the British Archaeological Association, in Answer to a Pamphlet of Mr. Thomas Joseph Pettigrew. By the Rev. Thomas Hugo, Formerly Secretary of the Association, Society of Antiquaries of London Bound Tracts 86, n.d., p. 4.

46 Pettigrew Thomas Joseph, ‘Thomas Joseph Pettigrew, F.R.S., F.S.A., F.L.S., &c. &c. &c.’, in Pettigrew (ed.) Medical Portrait Gallery: Biographical Memoirs of the Most Celebrated Physicians, Surgeons, etc. Who Have Contributed to the Advancement of Medical Science, vol. 4, London: Whittaker, 1840, pp. 140, 3.

47 Lawrence Christopher and Macdonald Fiona A., Sambrook Court: The Letters of J.C. Lettsom at the Medical Society of London, London: Wellcome Trust Centre for the History of Medicine, 2003.

48 James Frank, The Correspondence of Michael Faraday, vol. 2: 1832–December 1840. Letters 525–1333, London: Institute of Electrical Engineers, 1993.

49 Dawson Warren, Memoir of Thomas Pettigrew F.R.C.S., F.R.S., F.S.A. (1791–1865), New York: Medical Life Press, 1931.

50 Dawson, op. cit. (49).

51 Minney, op. cit. (43).

52 Pettigrew, op. cit. (46).

53 Dawson, op. cit. (49).

54 Evans, op. cit. (43), p. 227; Hall, op. cit. (43).

55 Wright Thomas, Archaeological Album, or Museum of National Antiquities, London: Chapman & Hall, 1845.

56 Dawson, op. cit. (49).

57 Pettigrew Thomas Joseph, ‘Account of the examination of the mummy of PET-MAUT-IOH-MES, brought from Egypt by the late John Gosset, Esq. and deposited in the Museum of the Island of Jersey’, Archaeologia (1838) 27, pp. 262273; Pettigrew , ‘Observations on the practice of embalming among the Ancient Egyptians, illustrated by the unrolling of a Mummy from Thebes, Presented to the Association by Joseph Arden, Esq., F.S.A., for the Worcester Congress’, Journal of the British Archaeological Association (1849) 4, pp. 337348.

58 Dawson Warren, ‘Pettigrew's demonstrations upon mummies: A chapter in the history of Egyptology’, Journal of Egyptian Archaeology (1934) 20, pp. 170182, 171.

59 Pettigrew, op. cit. (1), p. xvi.

60 ‘Varieties’, New Monthly Magazine and Literary Journal (1833) 38(149), pp. 111–113.

61 ‘Arts and sciences’, Literary Gazette (13 April 1833) 847, pp. 233–234, 234.

62 Pettigrew, op. cit. (1), p. xvi.

63 ‘Arts and sciences’, op. cit. (61), p. 234.

64 Lyon Playfair to Thomas Joseph Pettigrew, 17 March 1852, BL 56230, 92.

65 ‘Arts and sciences’, op. cit. (61), p. 234.

66 ‘Antiquarian researches’, Gentleman's Magazine (April 1833), pp. 355–358.

67 Dawson, op. cit. (58), p. 172.

68 Dawson, op. cit. (58), p. 173.

69 ‘Spirit of discovery’, Mirror of Literature, Amusement and Instruction (1 February 1834) 23, pp. 74–76, 74.

70 Clift quoted in Dawson, op. cit. (58), p. 173.

71 ‘Spirit of discovery’, op. cit. (69), p. 75.

72 ‘Spirit of discovery’, op. cit. (69), p. 75.

73 ‘Spirit of discovery’, op. cit. (69), p. 76.

74 ‘Egyptian mummies’, op. cit. (4), p. 110.

75 ‘Proceedings of societies’, New Monthly Magazine and Literary Journal (1834) 40, 158, pp. 254–258, 258.

76 ‘History of Egyptian mummies’, The Athenaeum (19 April 1834) 338, pp. 281–283; ‘Pettigrew on Egyptian mummies’, Monthly Review (1834) 2, pp. 234–242.

77 Warren Dawson papers, BL 56271, 3, 57.

78 John Lubbock to Thomas Joseph Pettigrew, 28 June, BL 56230, 46.

79 Charles Ferguson Forbes to Thomas Joseph Pettigrew, 26 May 1833, BL 53604, 117.

80 Ferdinand dal Pozzo to Thomas Joseph Pettigrew, 29 March 1837, Beinecke Rare Books and Manuscripts Library, Osborne Collection (subsequently OSB), Box 19, Folder 985.

81 Charles Bennet to Thomas Joseph Pettigrew, 11 June 1833, OSB 11, 521.

82 Dawson, op. cit. (49), pp. 72–73.

83 Pettigrew, op. cit. (1), p. xix, original emphasis.

84 Pettigrew Thomas Joseph, ‘Account of the unrolling of an Egyptian mummy, with incidental notes of the manners, customs, and religion, of the Ancient Egyptians’, Magazine of Popular Science and Journal of Useful Arts (1836) 2, pp. 1740, 40.

85 George Squibb to Thomas Joseph Pettigrew, n.d., OSB 19, 1043.

86 Pettigrew, op. cit. (84), p. 17, my emphases.

87 Pettigrew, op. cit. (84), p. 17.

88 Pettigrew, op. cit. (84), p. 17.

89 Wilson David, The British Museum: A History, London: British Museum Press, 2002, p. 91.

90 Charles Barnwell to Thomas Joseph Pettigrew, 26 May 1836, BL 56229, 16.

91 Samuel Birch to Thomas Joseph Pettigrew, 1 September 1837, BL 56229, 27.

92 Samuel Birch to Thomas Joseph Pettigrew, 8 September 1842, BL 56229, 38.

93 Warren Dawson papers, BL 56271, 9, 229.

94 Ikram Selima and Dodson Aidan, The Mummy in Ancient Egypt: Equipping the Dead for Eternity, London: Thames & Hudson, 1998, p. 71.

95 Birch Samuel, ‘On a mummy opened at Stafford House, on the 15th July, 1875’, Transactions of the Society of Biblical Archaeology (1877) 5, pp. 122126.

96 Dawson, op. cit. (58), Plate xxii.

97 Dawson, op. cit. (58), p. 176.

98 ‘Unrolling a mummy’, The Times, 11 April, 1837, p. 5.

99 ‘Scientific mummery’, Figaro in London (1837) 6, p. 58.

100 Miller William, The Anatomy of Disgust, London: Harvard University Press, 1997.

101 Alberti Samuel, ‘The museum affect: visiting collections of anatomy and natural history’, in Fyfe Aileen and Lightman Bernard (eds.), Science in the Marketplace: Nineteenth-Century Sites and Experiences, Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2007, pp. 371403, 391.

102 Davidson John, An Address on Embalming Generally Delivered at the Royal Institution on the Unrolling of a Mummy, London: James Ridgeway, Piccadilly, 1833.

103 Shapin Steven, ‘The invisible technician’, American Scientist (1989) 77, pp. 554563.

104 Stanley Peter, For Fear of Pain: British Surgery 1790–1850, Amsterdam: Rodopi/Clio Medica, 2003, p. 31.

105 Richardson Ruth, Death, Dissection and the Destitute, London: Phoenix, 1988.

106 Dawson, op. cit. (58), p. 176.

107 ‘Unrolling a mummy’, The Times, 7 March, 1837, p. 5.

108 Geary Patrick, ‘Sacred commodities: the circulation of medieval relics’, in Appadurai Arjun (ed.), The Social Life of Things: Commodities in Cultural Perspective, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1986, pp. 169191.

109 Abdel-Hakim Sahar Sobhi, ‘Silent travellers, articulate mummies, “Mummy Pettigrew” and the discourse of the dead’, in Starkey Paul and El Kholy Nadia (eds.), Egypt through the Eyes of Travellers, Durham: ASTENE, 2002, pp. 121148; Hamam Iman, ‘“A race for incorporation”: Ancient Egypt and its mummies in science and popular culture’, in Pearson Richard (ed.), The Victorians and the Ancient World: Archaeology and Classicism in Nineteenth-Century Culture, Newcastle: Cambridge Scholars Press, 2006, pp. 2540.

110 Pettigrew, op. cit. (1), p. xvii.

This paper has benefited from the critical attentions of a number of colleagues, friends and relatives. I am extremely grateful for the comments, criticisms and suggestions generously provided by C. Stephen Briggs, Richard Bussmann, Zoe Crossland, Chris Lawrence, Stephanie Moser, Chana Moshenska, Joe Moshenska, Tim Murray, Mike Parker Pearson, Sara Perry, Stephen Quirke, Raf Salkie, Tim Schadla-Hall, Michael Seymour, Kate Sheppard, Pamela Jane Smith, John Tait, John Taylor, Amara Thornton and David Wetherall, as well as two anonymous referees. This research forms part of a wider project on the history of public archaeology, generously supported by the Leverhulme Trust through an Early Career Research Fellowship.

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