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Friday essay: desecration and romanticisation – the real curse of mummies

Sofia Boutella rises from the dead in The Mummy. Universal Pictures

Friday essay: desecration and romanticisation – the real curse of mummies

This June Hollywood’s tomb of old ideas will creak open yet again and present the tale of an ancient Egyptian tomb disturbed by a bumbling archaeologist and/or action-adventure hero, who inadvertently and unwittingly unleashes a curse.

This curse will resurrect a mummy seeking either vengeance or a lost lover, wreaking havoc on contemporary society until our hero can stop it. This year The Mummy, directed by Alex Kurtzman, will see Hollywood pharaohs Tom Cruise and Russell Crowe face off against a female mummy played by Sofia Boutella.

Heard it before? Kurtzman’s film is just the latest in a staggering line of mummy-mania and Egyptophilia predating even the discovery of Tutankhamun’s tomb in 1922. While popular culture has delighted in mummies for over two centuries, in that same time real Egyptian antiquities have been looted, lusted after, and desecrated. In the 19th century, it was even fashionable to host “unwrapping” parties, where mummies were revealed and dissected as a social event within Victorian parlours.

A mummy is a deceased human or animal whose skin and organs have been preserved. This can either be done deliberately, through chemical embalming processes, or accidentally, thanks to the climate. A number of ancient cultures practised deliberate mummification, such as the Chinchorro people of South America, and most famously, the desiccated bodies of ancient Egypt, which were meticulously prepared for the afterlife.

Mummy studies has become a major academic discipline and more continue to be found. Within the last month we have seen the discovery of 17 mummies in a necropolis near the Nile Valley city of Minya and the finding of a New Kingdom nobleman’s tomb in Luxor. Despite this level of scholarly attention and meticulous archaeological investigation, sadly illicit looting and smuggling of antiquities from Egypt, including mummies, continues today.

Everything really old is new again

With a reported budget of $125 million, filmed principally in Oxford and the British Museum, The Mummy is a big budget investment for Universal Studios. History suggests that the movie will be a major success.

Still, the mother of all mummy movies remains the 1932 original Universal film The Mummy, starring Boris Karloff; it sets the template for the others to follow. Egyptian priest Imhotep, sympathetically played by Karloff, was mummified alive for attempting to revive his forbidden lover, the princess Ankh-es-en-amon. Discovered by archaeologists who resurrect him by reading from the Scroll of Thoth, Imhotep believes that a modern woman Helen Grosvenor (played by Zita Johann) is the princess’ reincarnation and hunts her through modern London. Not so much a monster then as a misunderstood lover.

More than a dozen films followed, from the 40s-era (The Mummy’s Tomb), the 50s (The Mummy) the 80s (The Awakening), and culminating with the 1999’s box office smash, The Mummy, which spawned two sequels and a spinoff prequel franchise.

Each of these films has fundamentally the same plot. In the 2017 version, a woman is raised from the dead rather than a man, but even this is not new. Hammer’s Blood From the Mummy’s Tomb (1971) featured a female mummy (Valerie Leon), who is revived and then walks around in far-too-few clothes for a London winter.

Valerie Leon in Blood From the Mummy’s Tomb (1971)

Of curses and kings

Why is the mummy such a popular trope in horror cinema? The mummy, it can be argued, symbolises some of our most basic fears surrounding mortality. The mummy’s enduring appeal can also be traced to the one archaeological dig everyone on the planet has heard of: Tutankhamun’s tomb. The discovery of this tomb by Howard Carter in the Valley of the Kings in 1922 made international headlines. The resulting Tut-mania influenced all manner of popular culture from Art Deco design and fashion, to pop songs and advertising.

Archival footage of Carter’s excavations at the tomb of Tutankhamun in 1922.

A recent exhibition at Oxford’s Ashmolean Museum explored just how famous Tutankhamun was during this key period of mummy-mania. Media coverage of the excavations was insatiable. Carter had an exclusive deal with the Daily Express newspaper, which led other reporters to embellish their stories. This led to reports of a supposed (but non-existent) curse on the tomb, “Death comes on swift wings to him who disturbs the peace of the King”. It was nonsense of course, but once the financier of the archaeological project, Lord Carnarvon, died in Cairo thanks to an infected mosquito bite, the curse story took off faster than any real news. In popular culture, mummies and curses became irreversibly linked.

The discovery of Tutankhamun by Carter’s team has itself inspired a number of fictionalised retellings, of varying degrees of fidelity to history, including the movie The Curse of King Tut’s Tomb (1980), a TV movie remake of the same name in 2006, and the 2016 British TV series Tutankhamun.

While Tut perpetuated the Hollywood craze for mummies, the public fascination for curses predates Carnarvon’s unfortunate death. A series of silent films with mummy themes were made in the first years of cinema, including Cleopatra’s Tomb (1899) by pioneering film-maker George Melies, and 1911’s The Mummy. Unfortunately most of these have not survived.

There was also a rich 19th-century tradition of mummy literature. Mummies appeared in everything from serious works to penny dreadfuls. A number of famed writers told stories that cemented the curse story, including Louisa May Alcott’s Lost in a Pyramid: or the Mummy’s Curse (1869); Bram Stoker’s Jewel of Seven Stars (1903) and Arthur Conan Doyle’s Lot No. 249 (1892).

‘Modern Antiques’ was an 1806 caricature by Thomas Rowlandson which satirizes the British enthusiasm for ancient Egypt. Wikipedia

Other works went beyond curses. Edgar Allan Poe’s Some Words With a Mummy (1845) was a satirical comment on Egyptomania. There were also romance novels, perhaps best typified by the 1840 story The Mummy’s Foot by Théophile Gautier, in which a young man buys a mummified foot from a Parisian antiques shop to use as a paperweight. That night he dreams of the beautiful princess the foot belonged too, and the two fall in love only to be separated by time.

A number of scholars, notably Jasmine Day, have been investigating the role of mummies in 19th-century fiction, and one interesting aspect is the number of female writers of these tales.

One of, if not the earliest, mummy story, was Jane Webb (Loudon)’s The Mummy!: Or a Tale of the Twenty Second Century (1827), which charts the revival of Cheops in the year 2126. Other female writers provided an interesting subtext and perspective.

The tombs of real Egyptian mummies had been violated and exploited by looters, and a rape analogy is clear within the earlier curse fiction of female writers. In contrast, male writers like Gautier often presented more romanticised or eroticised views of the dead.

The rape of the Nile

18th century apothecary vessel with the inscription MUMIA from the Deutsches Apothekenmuseum Heidelberg. Wikipedia

European fascination with Egyptian mummies began centuries ago: crushed mummy was sold in apothecaries for a variety of medical and aphrodisiac purposes (Shakespeare has the witches mention mummies in Macbeth’s cauldron scene).

Meanwhile “mummy brown”, a colouring pigment partially made from ground up mummies, was used in European art (it was particularly favoured by the Pre-Raphaelites.

But Egyptomania really began in earnest in the 19th century. Italian-born British explorer Giovanni Belzoni’s accounts of his 1815-8 adventures in Egypt became legendary, as were the mummies and other antiquities he brought back to London.

His accounts spoke of breaking into tombs and the crunching sounds made beneath his feet as he stood on mummified bodies.

G.B. Belzoni, Forced Passage into the Second Pyramid of Ghizeh, 1820, hand-coloured etching. UA1992.24. University of Sydney Art Collection. Sydney University Museums

Scientists accompanying Napoleon’s Egyptian campaigns would discover the Rosetta Stone, which would later in the UK lead to the deciphering of hieroglyphs. Egyptian tourism took off by the mid-19th century. All of this saw a growing interest in Egypt. Mummies, or at least mummified remains, became valued items in national museum collections and personal cabinets of curiosities.

The desire for owning mummies and other Egyptian artefacts, coupled with European colonial expansion and a fascination with Orientalism drove a massive market for human remains and other antiquities. Famously described as “the rape of the Nile”, this looting was on a monumental scale, literally in the case of obelisks and giant sculptures. Entrepreneurial Egyptians established antiquities shops to supply the insatiable desire of European visitors to own the past.

Mummy of a boy, early second century AD, from Thebes, Egypt. NMR26.1, Nicholson Museum, The University of Sydney. Sydney University Museums

Many of the mummies ended up in museums intended for scholarly study, even here in Australia. From university museums to state collections to private institutions such as MONA, a surprisingly large number of mummies have made it to this country.

Others ended in the hands of private European and American collectors where both public and private unwrapping parties became popular. Surgeon Thomas Pettigrew’s unwrappings in a Piccadilly Theatre in the 1820s were the first of what became a popular event by the middle of that century.

Paul Dominique Philippoteaux, Examen d'une momie - Une prêtresse d'Ammon, oil on canvas, Egypt, c.1895 - 1910. Peter Nahum at the Leicester Galleries

It was partially the scale of this loss that drove Egypt to develop one of the world’s first antiquities laws. Enacted by an 1835 decree, it aimed to prevent unauthorised removal of antiquities from the country.

This was followed by the creation of the Supreme Council of Antiquities in 1858 and the opening of the Cairo Museum five years later. The flood of Egyptian antiquities abroad did not halt, but it definitely slowed and, combined with the rise of the academic discipline of archaeology, saw a gradual shift in the understanding of the importance of context for antiquities.

Subsequent tightening of legislation in Egypt and elsewhere, followed by the 1970 UNESCO Convention on the Means of Prohibiting and Preventing the Illicit Import, Export and Transfer of Ownership of Cultural Property has created the modern environment for ethical archaeological investigation and legal exportation of antiquities.

No end to Egypto-mania

However looting still remains a major problem in Egypt today, particularly with the decline in tourism and economic hardships that has come with the political turmoil following the 2011 Arab Spring. The number of antiquities looted and smuggled out of Egypt remains extraordinary high. An estimated $26 million worth of looted antiquities were illegally transported to the US from Egypt in just the first five months of 2016.

According to the website Live Science, antiquities guards have been “gunned down” while protecting an ancient tomb and “mummies have been left out in the sun to rot after their tombs were robbed”.

Looting and destruction of mummies at the site of Abu Sir Al Malaq in Egypt. HBO
The problem is ongoing, and ranges from systematic international smuggling syndicates through to locals attempting to raise some extra money on side. Satellite images demonstrate large areas that are being systematically looted.

Unsupervised excavation can be dangerous. Two illegal excavators were killed this month as their house collapsed on their tunnel, the latest of a number of incidents. It is a tragic reminder of how close we are to the past, and how the lure of mummies is as great today as it was for Belzoni.

As we eat our popcorn and enjoy watching Tom Cruise battle with the reanimated dead it is worth remembering that the real curse of the mummies is not what they can do to us in fiction and film, but rather the way we have desecrated and treated them in real life.