This week: Mummies

Painted cartonnage of an unknown woman, dated from c.750-850 BC, and found in Deir el-Bahri (Western Thebes). IMAGE: public domain

The ancient Egyptian process of mummification holds a unique place in the popular imagination – inspiring exhibitions, movies, books, and countless school trips.

As we learn this week on The Past, however, Western responses to this extraordinary and costly practice are often still based on ideas and attitudes that have been handed down over many decades – deriving from the time when so many mummies were excavated, during the first period of British rule of Egypt, from the 1880s to the 1910s.

This raises an intriguing question: does what we think about these objects today reveal more about our own concerns and beliefs, and those of our recent forebears, than it does about those of the people who actually made and used them?

According to Campbell Price – the curator of a major touring exhibition, Golden Mummies of Egypt, which opens this month at Manchester Museum – there has long been a tendency to concentrate on the process itself, and on the materials and chemicals involved, which leads many museum visitors to assume that the point of mummification was simply to preserve the body.

In the latest issue of Ancient Egypt magazine, he explains that mummification in fact had a far more ambitious purpose than mere preservation. For Egypt’s wealthy elite, it offered nothing less than the chance to achieve immortality, and to win an eternal place among the gods.

You can also listen to Campbell on this week’s edition of The PastCast, our brilliant podcast (out soon) – or better still, come to hear him speak at our exciting live event, CA Live! 2023, on 25 February (see here for more details and ticket information).

Elsewhere this week, we have also been delving into the archives for more about mummies: we investigated the tomb of Maiherpri to find out more about the ‘Lion of the Battlefield’; we reassessed the 2010 genetic testing of the Tutankhamun family DNA to build a more accurate picture of the Amarna family tree; we looked into the case of Pharaoh Amenhotep I, the only known ancient Egyptian royal mummy never to have been unwrapped; and we even caught up with the ancient mummified remains of a cat.

And finally, if all that leaves you hungry for more, don’t forget to have a go at our latest Quiz, which this week is also themed around mummification. Good luck, and we hope you enjoy The Past!

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