Our international touring exhibition ‘Golden Mummies of Egypt’ returns to Manchester Museum this week, and presents a unique opportunity to display and discuss our collections.
Naturally, an exhibition which features mummified remains prompts discussion about the ethics of their display. Debate on the subject is not new but has attended the display of Egyptian mummified people at least since the first Western encounters with them in the 17th Century. Manchester Museum itself has been the centre of consideration of the subject since it chose to cover some remains to prompt discussion in connection with an exhibition on ‘Lindow Man’, Iron Age remains preserved in a peat bog, in 2008.
Unlike the previous venues for ‘Golden Mummies’ in the US and China, we have decided to edit out all images of human remains derived from CT-scans and X-rays from the final Manchester showing. Digital interpretation now focuses solely on the outer decoration and materials used in the mummification ritual, one that was more about transformation of the deceased into a divine being than simply about preservation of the body.
By doing this, the exhibition resists the urge to look inside – the default expectation of recent exhibitions featuring mummified human remains but one that was never anticipated by ancient people. Instead, ‘Golden Mummies’ addresses the intention rather than the effect of the ritual of mummification, and focuses on the transformative imagery on the decorated exterior of carefully wrapped bodies. From the earliest identifiable depictions of gods, the wrapped, shrouded form has indicated (and imparted) divine status. Usually, Egyptology describes gods like Osiris and Ptah as ‘mummiform’ – when in fact the shrouded forms of mummified bodies imitate images of gods. These amorphous forms subsume individual human characteristics, and create a divine, ancestral image – an effigy for eternity.
Research that enquires into preservation techniques and palaeopathology – the study of ancient disease – has long fascinated people. But by narrowing in on the medical history of mummified individuals, this interpretation characterises the dead individual in terms of their illnesses, the identification of which is much more contested and subjective than many non-specialists realise.
When understood as transformation of a human body into a divine image, mummification actively denies these human frailties. Texts and images repeatedly assert that the (elite) dead have become something more than human, impervious to change, divine and therefore without imperfections.
This generically god-like, and mostly androgenous, face is what appears in countless plaster-and-linen masks; these were mass-produced and subsume individual identity into a standardised – even hieroglyphic – vision of an eternal face or ‘head of mystery’, to quote from spell 151 of the Book of the Dead.
Roman Period painted wooden panels are often held up as if, by contrast, they are snapshots of reality – a definitive break from the supposedly stiff and caricatured form of Pharaonic-style mask. Yet if – as seems likely – most were painted posthumously, then these painted ‘portraits’ are no simple reflections of what people looked like in life. At best, they are highly stylised approximations – much as we might want these to be ‘the way people actually looked’. Reference to a certain Roman Emperor’s hairstyle is often used to date these images – although emperors were themselves deified, providing a further divine model to imitate. These lifelike images are, therefore, not less ‘godly’ than the Pharaonic-style masks.
Unlike in Pharaonic times, there is evidence that wrapped bodies with panel paintings and masks were placed on selective display for a period perhaps up to several years after funeral rituals. Although the archaeologist Flinders Petrie assumed this to be in a domestic context, dedicated sacred spaces seem more likely. This kind of direct interaction with the dead – present as ancestors – is common in many cultures, although we are often unfamiliar with such practices in the West.
The unwrapped mummified body of a woman named Asru remains on display in our Egypt and Sudan gallery, as she has for almost 200 years. She is covered in ancient linen from collar to feet, as are the royal mummies at the National Museum of Egyptian Civilisation in Cairo. Over the next few months we will be consulting with our audiences about how we might approach the display of Asru’s remains in future.