In the present day, mummies are protected and preserved but that wasn’t always the case.
Not all that long ago, Egyptian mummies were used by Europeans for ‘practical’ uses rather than academic studies.
Beginning in the 15th century, merchants profited from trafficking mummies away from Egypt and into Europe, in a practice often referred to as the “mummy trade”.
Evidence suggests that Europeans believed that embalmed bodies contained otherworldly healing powers. Other scholars trace the relationship’s origin to the misconception that mummies contained bitumen, a substance that was associated with healing in the ancient world.
Better known as ‘asphalt’ today, bitumen is highly toxic and carcinogenic, but to medieval Europeans, it was a miracle.
Naturally occurring bitumen was incredibly rare, so this led to merchants hunting for Egyptian tombs.
Of course, mummies are not exactly in unlimited supply, so certain merchants even decided to create their own in the form of modern corpses that were treated to resemble ancient mummies.
Mummies were not ground up just for medicinal use, they were also utilised in art. From at least the 16th century, a pigment named ‘mummy brown’ was created from mummified human remains.
During the process, ground up mummies were mixed with pitch and myrrh. The use of the pigment began during the Renaissance when painters were said to prize Mummy brown for richness and versatility.
The unwrapping of a mummy was considered the height of elite parties
By the 18th century, European attitudes towards mummies were shifting into the realm of a macabre fascination. Unwrapping a mummy became an event that would be hosted in a private home or, later, in a public theatre.
These unwrapping events proved to be highly popular throughout the 19th century as they appealed to science and morbidity, both staples of Victorian interests.
The gruesome spectacles would see a mummified body from Ancient Egypt being brought into a crowd of onlookers, and unwrapped, revealing them for the first time in millennia. The unwrapping would take place in private homes of the elite before making their way down through society.
Thomas ‘Mummy’ Pettigrew was the most renowned man to engage in this practice. The surgeon-turned-antiquarian would regularly sell out venues with these parties, making a large sum of money in the process.