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Wednesday, July 20, 2016

Victorian Party People Unrolled Mummies For Fun | Atlas Obscura

Victorian Party People Unrolled Mummies For Fun

Examination of a Mummy by Paul Dominique Philippoteaux c 1891. (Photo: Public Domain/ArtMight)

If you were looking to have a great night out on January 15, 1834, Thomas Pettigrew's sold-out event was definitely the place to be. The lucky Londoners who had managed to acquire a ticket for the Royal College of Surgeons that night, were looking forward to a rare sensation: before their eyes, Pettigrew was going to slowly unroll an authentic Egyptian mummy of the 21st dynasty–for science!

Mummy unrollings were only one symptom of the Egyptomania sweeping England in the 19th century. Europeans had been buying mummies since Shakespeare's times to use them as medicine, pigment or even charms; now, the Napoleonic wars and England's colonial expanse had created a renewed interest in Egypt's past, to the point that, as the French aristocrat and Trappist monk Abbot Ferdinand de Géramb wrote to Pasha Mohammed Ali in 1833, “it would be hardly respectable, on one’s return from Egypt, to present oneself without a mummy in one hand and a crocodile in the other.”

Demand was so high that the fledgling tourist industry in Egypt transported mummies from the least visited places of the country to place in their more popular ruins, in order to satisfy foreign visitors.

Thomas Pettigrew. (Photo: Public Domain/WikiCommons)

Thomas Pettigrew was uniquely qualified to take this love affair with Egypt's dead to the next level. A highly respected surgeon now focusing on his antiquarian interests, Pettigrew had just published his very well-received History of Egyptian Mummies (1834). As a friend to many artists and authors–including Charles Dickens–he also knew how to spin scientific theory into fascinating spectacle. While he was not the first to unroll a mummy in front of an audience, he was the one to turn the procedure into a performance.