Skip to content

A Mummy by Any Other Name

A century after the discovery of Tutankhamun’s tomb, curators bent on ‘decolonizing’ history have become needlessly skittish about the M-word.

· 14 min read
A Mummy by Any Other Name
Wikimedia Commons photo of a 20th Dynasty (1189BC–1077BC) Egyptian mummified child.

In November 2022, the British media marked an important centenary: the passage of 100 years since the discovery of the antechamber of Tutankhamun’s tomb by the English archaeologist Howard Carter and his patron, the Fifth Earl of Carnarvon, in Egypt’s Valley of the Kings. February 16th, 2023 likewise marks the centenary of the duo’s uncovering of the pharaoh’s main burial chamber. The occasion has led some of Carter and Carnarvon’s decidedly less adventurous modern-day museum-based counterparts to set down rules regarding how the topic should be discussed.

In the run-up to this week’s milestone, newspapers informed readers that the word “mummy” has been added to the lengthy list of words that academics want to see banned. Notwithstanding these attention-grabbing headlines, however, the M-word is not entirely verboten—at least not yet. But museums across the British Isles are indeed beginning to remove the word “mummy” from exhibit display labels, in favour of awkward phrases such as “mummified person.”

Strictly speaking, a “mummy” is any dead human or animal whose tissues and organs are preserved with chemicals, desiccation, extreme cold, or oxygen deprivation. But in the way the word is colloquially used, it is often linked with Ancient Egypt, whose embalmers employed a variety of methods to preserve the dead. According to a spokeswoman for National Museums Scotland, within whose institutions the M-word rebranding has been implemented as a matter of official policy, “the word ‘mummy’ is not incorrect, but it is dehumanizing, whereas using the term ‘mummified person’ encourages our visitors to think of the [living, pre-mummified] individual.”

Promotional poster for The Mummy (1932).

This is hardly an unworthy goal for curators, given the many “mummies” that have appeared as supernatural villains in schlocky Hollywood horror movies. Certainly, it is reasonable to imagine that some museum visitors may be inclined to associate what are in fact the remains of real human beings with scary, coffin-dwelling fictional creatures or novelties set within cabinet-of-curiosity exhibits. Unfortunately, this call for linguistic refinement is becoming tied up with the far more nebulous process known as cultural “decolonization,” by which Egypt’s ancient dead are spuriously presented as exploited victims of European colonial regimes.

In this regard, a key text mined by journalists has been a 2021 journal article authored by Jo Anderson, Assistant Keeper of Archaeology at the Great North Museum: Hancock in the English city of Newcastle, titled “Our Changing Relationship with Irtyru” (Irtyru being the generally accepted name of an Egyptian mummy that’s been kept on display at that museum for generations). The essay was illustrated by a classic of Victorian narrative painting, Paul Dominique Philippoteaux’s Examen d'une momie (Examination of a Mummy), which portrays a series of impressively-bearded 19th-century white men cutting up a bandaged ancient Egyptian female on a dissecting table whilst subaltern Nile-dwellers perform subordinate tasks. The selection of the image seems intended to sum up in handy visual shorthand what Anderson terms the deeply “problematic” relationship between her institution and the cadaver of the “mummified person” known as Irtyru.

“As part of a museum-wide initiative to uncover hidden truths and untold stories about our collections,” Anderson explained, she and her colleagues had embarked upon a process of examining “how colonial practices have played their part in desecrating what would have been sacred remains.” On the surface, that sounds like a worthy thing to do. But then one asks: What role did “colonial practices” actually play in “desecrating” Irtyru’s “sacred remains”?

Anderson was referencing the fact that, as far as can be ascertained from incomplete records, the mummy known as Irtyru (or at least the mummy who occupied the sarcophagus of someone named Irtyru, as there is no guarantee they are one and the same) was looted initially by the French following Napoleon’s invasion of Egypt in 1798. Auctioned off at a Paris antiquities sale in 1822, the mummy was later sold again to an English collector who donated her to the Literary and Philosophical Society of Newcastle, from whence she ultimately found her way to the modern-day museum. In 1830, three Newcastle surgeons gave a public lecture during which the mummy was unbound and medically examined. The surgeons would doubtless have called this an act of instructive public education, but Anderson prefers to call it an “unwrapping party” (actually a once-common term, though some dispute its accuracy).

During this party/lecture, the doctors subjected the mummy to “severe violations,” reported Anderson. This included a large metal staple being inserted into Irtyru’s skull and spine, so she could be hung upright in her coffin for display purposes. Foolishly, the surgeons thereby damaged the corpse, hindering the examinations of future scholars; but also, it seems, causing mutilations that present “major ramifications” for Irtyru’s potential entrance into the Egyptian afterlife. Anderson explained that ancient Egyptian corpses needed to be preserved and “protected for eternity” in an intact state, so as to act as “an earthly anchor for the soul.”

Anderson is correct that “the ancient Egyptians would have wrapped [Irtyru] to transform her into a sacred being, while the unwrapping process merely transformed her into a specimen or curiosity.” But it’s not clear why this latter act is framed specifically as being “a Western colonialist practice” given that even modern Egyptians prominently display the corpses of their ancient dead, both for scientific purposes and as a means of encouraging a lucrative influx of tourists (more on this subject below).

19th-century Egyptian mummy vendor.

Having lived during the Late Period of ancient Egypt (664BC–332BC), Irtyru is obviously long beyond caring what happened to her mortal remains. So, too, are her descendants, friends, and relations, all of whom were literally (almost) “as old as the pyramids,” as the saying goes. Ancient Egypt itself would eventually be conquered—one might say colonized—by Persians, Greeks, and, much later, the armies of Islam, all of which imposed their own religious beliefs, cults, languages, and rituals, while grinding those of their predecessors into the dust of history. This happened many centuries before Napoleon arrived on Egyptian shores.

The Victorians could be insensitive stewards of the world’s cultural and historical treasures. But times have changed. And when the Great North Museum was refurbished with a brand-new Ancient Egypt wing in 2009, the mummy was given pride of place for the edification of all. It shows how quickly intellectual fashions now change that, just over a decade later, Anderson saw fit to ask whether “we should have her [Irtyru] on public display at all—this is something that we will be investigating with our visitors and wider museum audience later this year.”

When it comes to her institution’s decision to stop using the word “mummy,” Anderson referenced Margaret Maitland, Principal Curator of the Ancient Mediterranean at National Museums Scotland; who, by Anderson’s account, “has demonstrated to me how the word ‘mummy’ has a colonial past—it’s derived from the Arabic word mūmiyā, which means ‘bitumen’ [black crude oil in a heavily viscous state]. This is a reference to the 18th and 19th centuries, when mummified remains were collected in vast numbers and broken up to provide ingredients for things like medicine and paint.” The facts here aren’t wrong, but the argument linking all this to colonialism is questionable.

The archaic English word mummie, meaning “medicinal substance prepared from mummy tissue,” is, as Anderson says, believed to have been derived from Arabic and/or Persian, likely via the intermediary medieval Latin term mumia. It began appearing in English in the 14th century, though in a way that referred to preserved corpses in general, not specifically ancient Egyptian ones shrouded in bandages. Macbeth, written by Shakespeare around 1606, mentions “witches’ mummy, maw and gulf” (IV.i.23) as some of the disgusting ingredients to be found in the Weird Sisters’ cauldron. When used in specific relation to bandage-wound Egyptian corpses, the word is recorded in English from the 1610s onward. The literary-minded English physician and proto-scientist Sir Thomas Browne complained in 1658 of how “the Aegyptian Mummies, which Cambyses [a Persian conqueror of Egypt] or time hath spared, avarice now consumeth. Mummie is become merchandise … and Pharaoh is sold for balsams.”

It is also true that recovered mummies once were chopped up and consumed for their (pseudo) medicinal properties, based on the belief that the bitumen used in the mummification process had curative powers. But, as the fact that “mummy” is derived from Middle Eastern languages suggests, this practice of abusing mummies long predated the presence of European empires in Egypt, even if those empires continued it. Yes, Europe was a primary market for stolen mummified remains. However, this was often a case of native Egyptian entrepreneurs exploiting European gullibility by peddling placebos for their own financial benefit, not a case of colonial exploitation.

Carter and Carnarvon certainly did not dice up the boy-king Tutankhamun for sale on the black market. But it seems the Ottoman Egyptians of Browne’s day did. That’s the wrong empire to speak ill of in today’s academic circles, however, which might be why Anderson chose not to focus on this historical angle (although, to be fair, Egyptian authorities did try to ban the trade in the 16th century).

In 1658, when Browne was writing on this subject, Egypt was still controlled by the Ottomans, who’d added the land to their imperial possessions in 1517; previously, it had been part of the (equally Islamic) Mamluk Empire, from 1250 onward. By the time Napoleon, and then the British, invaded, native Egyptians and Ottoman interlopers had been plundering and dismembering ancient mummies for centuries. The Europeans simply provided them with a new market.

Two academics who might now be seen as (regrettably?) ahead of their time on this topic are anatomist Frank Rühli and ethicist Ina Kaufmann, both of the University of Zurich. In a 2010 article entitled “Without ‘Informed Consent’? Ethics and Ancient Mummy Research,” the authors raised three possible objections to dissecting and displaying mummies in museums: (1) Such treatment is (as the title suggests) performed “a priori without informed consent of the deceased,” who is now redefined rather bureaucratically as a “relevant stakeholder”; (2) mummy autopsies may allow scientists to gain “intimate information” about a mummy’s way of life, which could offend his or her original wish to be “remembered as strong and healthy,” or otherwise offend his or her dignity; and (3) such procedures “do not follow the common criteria of medical privacy,” as with display captions “specifically naming major diseases or causes of death of a famous individual, such as a former king or pharaoh.”

As regular Quillette readers have likely noted by this point, there are similarities here to the objections made against studying the remains of Paleoindians in North America. But in those cases, the progressive thinking goes, decisions about the treatment of human remains should be made by the leadership of modern Indigenous tribes, on the (sometimes dubious) basis that a direct line of cultural and ancestral continuity may be traced up through the millennia. That kind of logic is difficult to apply to Ancient Egypt, whose repeated conquest by various outsiders through the ages is well documented. Thus do Rühli and Kaufmann conclude that “a culturally well-informed scientist”—Jo Anderson is presumably the sort of person they had in mind—“may have more ethical insights into the cultural belief of an ancient mummy than descendants who do not share a common cultural belief [in the existence of an ancient afterlife], but only ethnical proximity.”

Rühli and Kaufmann also bring us into more esoteric sub-topics, including a discussion of how a mummy’s age at death may affect this kind of moral analysis. “One should also differentiate between whether a child or adult mummy [is] involved,” they noted, as those below the age of adulthood could not give informed consent. Adult mummies, on the other hand, “intentionally underwent preservation and thus indirectly took into consideration the possibility of his physical availability to later generations” of onlookers. (However, the authors also provided the caveat that “in the case of accidental mummification, such as for ice-mummies, this may be regarded differently.”)

These aren’t trivial moral issues, but they generally relate more directly to the remains of the recently deceased, since their dignity and rights exert a stronger claim on our conscience than those of someone who walked the Earth in a long bygone era. This is because someone recently deceased will likely have living friends, colleagues, and relatives, or at least close descendants, who may regard the dissection and public display of their departed loved one as offensive. It strains common sense to imagine that the same sort of sensibilities are now at play for someone, such as Tutankhamun, who lived centuries before the creation of the Roman Empire.

Yet some modern curators act as if their mummified specimens are fresh deliveries from a local funeral home. In 2008, for instance, officials at Manchester Museum in the north of England piously covered over one of their most popular displays, that of a pair of mummies named Asru and Khary, with sheets in order to treat them with “respect” and protect their privacy, “in line with the Manchester Museum Human Remains Policy.” Khary, incidentally, was on loan from Stonyhurst College in Lancashire. So the museum here had actually gone to the specific trouble of borrowing an exhibit that they (retroactively) decided would be offensive to display.

After museum visitors made their displeasure known, the staff reluctantly capitulated and agreed to re-expose Asru and Khary, which suggests public pushback against woke overreach can sometimes actually work. And the museum has more recently sent its now eight-strong mummy collection abroad for temporary display in China as part of a travelling “Golden Mummies of Egypt” exhibition.  

University College Cork in Ireland took a different route in 2022 when it proudly announced the return of an unnamed adult male mummy (once wrongly presumed by misgendering researchers to have been “an Egyptian Queen”) to the custody of Cairo. This act, we were told, represented “an important element of an overall process of decolonization” at the institution; this despite the fact that Ireland has never possessed an empire of any kind, and was in fact herself a long-term (and oft-brutalized) colony of England. A documentary art film is being made about the repatriation, entitled “Kinship.” This bills the mummy’s return home as “mirroring the tragic displacement and migration of thousands of people from their homelands today” (which seems like quite a stretch, though of course I have not yet seen the film).

One online student commentator has triumphantly referred to these developments as “a huge win for Edward Said,” this being a reference to the Palestinian-American scholar whose 1978 book Orientalism famously denounced the West’s depiction of the east as an exoticized “Other.” And it is quite true that Western fascination with mummies, and Ancient Egypt more generally, has often been suffused with ahistorical kitsch. Yet even at its most melodramatic, supernatural mummy-related literature of the late colonial period—embodied most perfectly by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s 1892 short story Lot No.249, and Guy Boothby’s 1898 novel Pharos, the Egyptian—carried at least some hints of modern progressive anxieties about the despoilation wrought by Western visitors to Egypt. This includes the standard trope by which the angry spirits of stolen Egyptian corpses gain revenge upon colonial oppressors and grave-robbing museum staff.

An illustration of the mummy from Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Lot No.249, by Martin van Maële.

The modern display of mummies might be treated less skeptically by progressive critics if these exhibits could be decisively enlisted in the campaign to break down conventional notions of sex and gender. But as yet, the only instances of this originate with non-professional online commentators, including a suggestively named reddit user, SapphoAndHerFriend, who makes much of an illustrated textbook containing a photograph of “an unusual mummy from Egypt’s Roman period,” which looks to the naked eye like it is female. X-rays confirmed it was actually a male mummy, whose below-bandage tattoos revealed him as a religious dancer of some kind. His frame was packed with cloth to make him appear to have large breasts and wide hips, leading to online speculation that Ancient Egypt had a trans scene.

A more detailed journalistic write-up of this mummy’s case from 2014 revealed the more mundane truth, which is that “the man was fat and the embalmer was trying to recreate accurately his appearance during life.” Adding to the confusion, when the dancer was donated to the British Museum in 1835, he came in a coffin, which turned out to have originally belonged to another decedent, marked with the female name, “Mutemmanu.” He was also wearing “a short skirt or kilt around the waist, which was once pink” when he first arrived in London, so make of that what you will—keeping in mind that pink was once considered a masculine colour in our own Western societies.

The simple fact that tomb-raiders of the past often carelessly swapped mummies around in their sarcophagi enabled another web user to speculate that a “‘Transgender’ Mummy” may well have been found in the collection of Birmingham Museum in England. The corpse’s coffin had been labelled as containing “The daughter of Amunkhau,” but recent scans had showed this “daughter” looked more like a son in certain unmistakable respects. I mention this (admittedly tangential) example primarily so that I may quote the Birmingham Mail’s pithy summary to the effect that “one of the mummies was a daddy.”

In some cases, mummies are wrongly said to have been misgendered on the basis that female (and even some male) pharaohs wore stylized metallic false beards—yet this is not because they were trying to subvert the gender binary, but because they were imitating depictions of the god Osiris, who was well-endowed with facial hair. Likewise, Hapi, the deity who acted as the personification of the life-giving Nile river, was depicted metaphorically as possessing both male and female anatomical aspects for reasons that have nothing to do with intersexuality (no matter what this 2016 list of “15 LGBT Egyptian Gods” in the US gay magazine the Advocate might indicate). Some ancient Egyptian gods were also part-human, part-bird, or part-jackal. That doesn’t make them proto-furries.

That said, there’s a curious fact about Egyptian mythology that does leave ample leeway for academics and activists to mine the desert sands for queer precedents: In order to successfully pass into the Land of the Dead, Egyptian priests of the Dynastic Period taught that the deceased had to transform spiritually into momentary incarnations of the gods of creation and regeneration, Atum, Osiris, and Re/Ra—all of whom were male. This posed little problem for dead males, but for dead females it was more complicated. In the words of Egyptologist Kathlyn M. Cooney, “[dead] Egyptian women had to shift their gender and ‘masculinize’ themselves to enter the Fields of Peace.”

As part of this trick, depictions of the woman on the coffin-lid, and some of the items buried alongside her, often were selected so as to make the woman look a bit like a man, in order to fool the gods of death into letting her pass. Once having successfully passed into the afterlife, however, the woman “returned to her feminine self, her true form,” wrote Cooney—an act that might be called detransition avant la lettre.

As exotic as Ancient Egypt may seem to all of us (including to modern Egyptians), its mummification practices reflected an anxiety that remains a powerful force in our own age. Now, as then, we all worry about what will happen to us when we die. Will we be forgotten? Or will our souls and legacies persist in some way?

As Rühli and Kaufmann noted, ancient Egyptian cultural beliefs stressed the need to “be remembered after death.” To be forgotten would be “to die for a second time.” And notwithstanding these two academics’ overwrought concerns about public displays of mummies, they concede that their exhibition could actually function as one way to “retain the [deceased] individual in memory” among today’s public, together with the memory of their ancient civilization.

As the Egyptian afterlife presumably does not exist in any literal sense, being remembered by museum visitors is one of the few ways in which these long-dead individuals actually can achieve any true degree of immortality. And while it would be presumptuous of me (or anyone) to speculate definitively about how this or that ancient Egyptian might have wanted his or her mummified body to be treated by future civilizations, I dare say that when asked to pick between complete obscurity and the public gaze, the latter might seem like the more attractive option.

It’s also worth considering who else gets testy about mummy exhibitions. In 2021, Ahmed Karima, a professor of comparative jurisprudence at Cairo’s prestigious theology-centered Al-Azhar University, declared that displaying mummified remains in museums was, in Islamic terms, haram, or forbidden. “The grave is a blessing from God to house the human being after his demise,” Karima said, and exhibiting a grave’s former occupant violated the dignity of the dead. In 1981, months before he was assassinated, Egyptian President Anwar Sadat made a similar moral assessment, closing the Royal Mummy Room in the nation’s Egyptian Museum on the basis that it was un-Islamic, a decision that remained in force until 1987.

Thankfully, Karima’s views are now out of fashion in Egypt, with one of the nation’s most famous archaeologists, Zahi Hawass, dismissing the old fatwa as obscurantist nonsense. It’s fine to outlaw graverobbers and other opportunists, Hawass acknowledged. But proper researchers are rescuing mummies from eventual physical disintegration, and thereby “work to immortalize these people” in the eyes of posterity.

Tutankhamun himself, I dare say, would be nodding in agreement.

Steven Tucker

Steven Tucker is a UK-based writer. His books include ‘Nazi UFOs,’ ‘The Saucer and the Swastika,’ and, most recently, ‘Hitler’s & Stalin’s Misuse of Science.’

Latest Podcast

Join the newsletter to receive the latest updates in your inbox.


On Instagram @quillette