Margaret Murray’s Pioneering Investigation in 1908

A scientific approach to the study of ancient Egyptian mummies.

Dr Margaret Murray, the first woman to hold a full-time Egyptology post in the United Kingdom, was a pioneer in the palaeopathological investigation of ancient Egyptian human remains. She led a team of scientists who, in the early 20th century, made an intensive study of the mummies of the ‘Two Brothers’ (Khnum-Nakht and Nakht-Ankh) in the collection of the Manchester Museum, University of Manchester. These mummies, together with two sets of coffins and various items of funerary furniture, comprised a complete tomb-group discovered at Deir Rifeh in Middle Egypt.

right Dr Margaret Murray and team members unwrapping and performing an autopsy on the mummy of Khnum-Nakht at the University of Manchester in 1908.
Dr Margaret Murray and team members unwrapping and performing an autopsy on the mummy of Khnum-Nakht at the University of Manchester in 1908. Image: Manchester Museum, University of Manchester

A key event in this investigation was the unwrapping and autopsy of the mummy of Khnum-Nakht, carried out in 1908 by Murray and her team, in front of an invited audience in the Chemistry Theatre at the University of Manchester. The resulting data and associated studies were published in her book The Tomb of Two Brothers (1910). As well as a describing the coffins and funerary furniture, and translating the associated hieroglyphic inscriptions, it contains scientific reports on the anatomy of the mummies, an analysis of the inorganic constituents of a mummy sample, and the fabrics and dyes used in the mummy wrappings.

The investigation was distinguished by its use of a multidisciplinary team to examine mummified remains for entirely scientific reasons. Early mummy autopsies (‘unrollings’), mostly frivolous social events, ceased to be popular from the mid-19th century onwards.

Margaret Murray’s groundbreaking project reflected a new approach, with research now led by museums and universities and undertaken by academics and scientific professionals.

Nevertheless, she faced criticism; her response was characteristically robust:

To most people there are few ideas more repugnant than that of disturbing the dead. To open graves, to remove all the objects placed there by loving hands, and to unroll and investigate the bodies, seems to many minds not merely repulsive but bordering on sacrilege. And yet these same people would not hesitate to wear a scarab-ring taken off a dead man’s hand… Their objections – their opinions even – are an offence to science. (Murray 1910: 7)

Murray contended that archaeology, including the investigation of human remains, contributes to the universal acquisition of knowledge, and should therefore be regarded as valid and acceptable. Her work has undeniably provided a firm basis for the many current palaeopathological studies that continue to contribute substantially to the history of disease and medical treatments.

Rosalie David
Emerita Professor of Egyptology, University of Manchester