Europe's morbid 'mummy craze' has been an obsession for centuries

Whether ground up as medicine or on display at 'unwrapping parties,' Egyptian mummies fascinated Europeans, giving rise to what's known as Egyptomania.

In an 1891 painting by Paul Dominique Philippoteaux, one of the first Egyptologists, Gaston Maspero (center), observes as the mummy of an ancient Egyptian priestess is unwrapped before members of the French Egyptology Society and their guests.
Bridgeman/ACI

Mummies are often a star attraction at many of the world’s great museums. Their temperature-controlled glass cabinets protect and preserve these bodies, which are thousands of years old. Locked within them is the history of how people lived along the Nile many millennia ago. Modern scholars treat them with reverence and great care, but it was not always the case.

Until very recently, Egyptian mummies were used by Europeans for practical rather than academic purposes. Their bodies were treated as a commodity because of the medical, supernatural, and physical characteristics they were believed to possess. Starting in the 15th century, merchants sought to profit from trafficking mummies out of Egypt and into Europe, and a robust “mummy trade” grew around them.

Mummification was a complex, lengthy process that helped preserve the body for its journey in the afterlife. Although the process changed over time, many of its core practices remained the same. After removing the body’s internal organs, priests would use natron, a naturally occurring salt, to dry it out. Sometimes fragrant substances, like myrrh, were used to anoint the body. Oils and resins would be applied to the body, which would then be stuffed with linen rags or sawdust before being sealed and wrapped in bandages. (Learn more about the mummification process.)

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