Following on from my own thoughts on the most recent installment in the ‘Mummy’ genre, I’m pleased to welcome a guest blog from armchair Egyptologist and film fanatic Matt Szafran – hopefully the first in a series!
It’s easy to be annoyed when a subject you’re knowledgeable in is depicted inaccurately on screen. I know medical workers who get annoyed when a procedure is performed in a fatally incorrect manner, IT people who balk at the incessant use of the word ‘firewall’ and locksmiths who laugh at the way a highly trained secret agent uses lock picks the wrong way round. It sounds obvious but sometimes we forget the fact that films are simply entertainment for the masses and in our haste to condemn the inaccuracies we often overlook the more accurate details.
To that end let us consider the Stephen Sommers directed The Mummy (1999) film, and observe what the filmmakers actually got right instead of debunking its inaccuracies. The film certainly has some egregious historical inaccuracies, however the team at Industrial Light and Magic, with the help of Egyptologist Dr Stuart Tyson Smith, included some surprisingly accurate details even though they know that the proverbial man on the street wouldn’t know a cartouche from a cartonnage. For the sake of brevity I’m going to cherry-pick a few examples of these, rather than consider every point in the film.
The end of the first act sees Arnold Vosloo’s Imhotep character being cursed with the ‘Hom Dai’ and being mummified alive alongside his priests. Due to ancient Egyptian decorum and secrecy we don’t know exactly how mummification was actually performed, however through mummy research and experimental archaeology we do have a good idea of the majority of the processes involved. In the film we see what appears to be excerebration and wrapping being performed on Imhotep’s priests, with some of the embalmers are wearing jackal headed masks. There are depictions in ancient Egyptian visual culture of masks being used whilst performing rituals like the ‘opening of the mouth’ ceremony, and there are also extant examples such as the Late Period clay mask in the Roemer-Pelizaeus Museum in Hildesheim or the Late Period cartonnage mask in The Royal Pump Room Museum in Harrogate. The wrappings applied to Imhotep look to be very accurate, with a herringbone weave pattern on the torso and strips of outer wrapping encircling the body and legs in the traditional figure-eight style. It’s not shown in this scene but when Imhotep’s coffin is later discovered it’s said that ‘the sacred spells have been chiselled off’ and that the occupant was ‘condemned not only in this life but in the next’. The spells removed from Imhotep’s coffin are likely to reference the Book of the Dead, which acts as a guide for the challenges faced in the afterlife and was painted on the inside and out of coffins, without which the deceased may find themselves lost in the underworld of Duat.
We’re introduced to Rachel Weisz’s Evelyn ‘Evy’ Carnahan character in the library of the ‘Cairo Museum of Antiquities’, which has shelves stacked with case bound books and binders. Those binders are actually imitation field reports by the Egypt Exploration Society (EES), with each binder being for different topics such as ‘art’ or ‘tools’. Interestingly the EES logo used is actually the original logo of the Egypt Exploration Fund (EEF) with the word ‘fund’ changed to ‘society’. As the film is primarily set in 1926 having an EEF logo would anachronistic, as the EEF became the EES in 1919. This is an excellent example of a tiny accurate detail that you ultimately can’t even see on screen, but the art department spent time creating it anyway. There is an interesting parallel here with the way much the ancient Egyptian visual culture would never be seen by human eyes other than its creator, and was purely for the consumption of the gods rather than man.
When the protagonists leave Giza aboard a riverboat heading for Hamunaptra, we see Evy reading a book during the journey. This is actually The Dwellers on The Nile by E. A. Wallis Budge published in 1885. Even though his works are not well regarded today, it would be wholly appropriate for Egyptology scholars of the 1920s to be reading Budge. The art department could have used any book but chose to use something historically accurate which the character would likely have been reading, even though only a tiny handful of people would ever realise the significance.
There is exceptional symbolism when we see the camera pan down a carved obelisk depicting Seth, the god of chaos and disorder, and on to Imhotep leading a mob of boil ridden ‘slaves’. As Campbell mentioned in his review of The Mummy (2017) (see post below); even though Seth is the preeminent choice for an ‘evil’ god he’s surprisingly rarely depicted on screen. Given how much research has gone into the other aspects of the film this feels a deliberate and appropriate backdrop to the antagonist as he’s about to commit another act of violence.
There are plenty more examples of accurate and otherwise interesting Egyptological details in both The Mummy (1999) and also in its sequel The Mummy Returns (2001). It can be enjoyable to watch the films and only look at the background, endeavouring to work out what references were used. Some of the origins of those props and sets, especially the ones used for hieroglyphic texts, can be equally surprising and obscure!