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Representation and Reality in ‘The Mummy’ (1999)

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.

ImhotepWrapped

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.

LibraryBinder

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.

DwellersOnTheNile

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.

Seth

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!

-Matt Szafran

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Biblical migrations: Re-telling the Story of Exodus

A modern view of Tell el-Maskhuta, the EEF's first excavated site

A modern view of Tell el-Maskhuta, the EEF’s first excavated site

Migration is a central theme in the Biblical story of Exodus. Quite apart from the debated historicity of the account of the departure of Hebrews from Egypt, the story of the Exodus has played an important role in the popular perception of ‘Ancient Egypt’.

For many people who were aware of Pharaonic history in the 18th and 19th Centuries, much of their information derived from the Bible. This is a major reason why the Manchester Museum has such an important collection of archaeologically-sourced objects from Egypt. In 1882, an organisation called the Egypt Exploration Fund was set up to preserve the remains of Egypt’s ancient past through archaeological recording. The first site chosen for the Fund’s work was Tell el Maskhuta, in the eastern Nile Delta – believed to be a store-city mentioned in Exodus. An account of findings from the site was published in 1885, under the title ‘The Store-City of Pithom and the Route to Exodus.’ The newly-formed Fund tapped into widespread popular interest in the supposed route of the Hebrews, and received donations specifically to investigate Biblical sites. The Fund’s founder, the redoubtable Miss Amelia B. Edwards, even wanted to give early subscribers the chance to own a genuine mudbrick, ‘made without straw, by an Isrealite in bondage’.

Thus, several monumental pieces of granite from the Delta sites came to Manchester as a result of the Egypt Exploration Fund’s focus on the area of putative Biblical events; perhaps unsurprisingly the Museum’s major Egyptological benefactor, Jesse Haworth, was a keen churchman.

Ridley Scott's new film

Ridley Scott’s new film

The appeal of the Exodus narrative continues today; the latest cinematic adaptation by Ridley Scott – Exodus: Gods and Kings – cost an estimated $140 million to produce. The presentation of ‘Ancient Egypt’, the backdrop to most of the film, is a fantastical conflation of surviving archaeological evidence and different degrees of misinterpretation of that evidence. Other commentators have elsewhere addressed the question of why ancient Egypt is so misrepresented, and which aspects of a film like ‘Exodus’ might have been improved.

For me, one particularly problematic cliché that the film perpetuates is of the ancient Egyptians as one-sided, whip-cracking slave drivers. Although most would scoff at the idea aliens built the pyramids – and, incongruously, there seem to be several pyramids under construction at once in the new Exodus film – it is still difficult for the modern Western mind to conceive of a large group of people accomplishing monumental feats such as building pyramids without cruel coercion.

The Manchester Museum preserves a world-class collection of objects that challenge the notion that ‘slaves built the pyramids’. These come from a town of specialist craftsmen who were paid, and well looked after, for their task of preparing the king’s tomb. This is one of many reasons why museums are so important. Hollywood presents a skewed version of reality, but one that has – as it is so fond of telling us – a basis in real places, amongst real people.

Museums preserve and present the artefactual evidence of living people who inhabited ancient Egypt, without the cinematic gloss (although not always without bias). One of a number of research projects currently at work on our Museum’s collection of 18,000 objects from ancient Egypt and Sudan attempts to chart the migration of people and cultural motifs from around the ancient Mediterranean into Egypt. This work is as meticulous as it is fascinating, using the latest advances in analytical scientific techniques to understand the lives of people in the past.

Dr Valentina Gasperini of the Liverpool University, examining imported pottery from New Kingdom Egypt

Dr Valentina Gasperini of the Liverpool University, examining imported pottery from New Kingdom Egypt

Perhaps one day, someone will make a film about the remarkable commonplace discoveries in museums that, among other things, help us understand the movement of people around the ancient Mediterranean – rather than repeating a lazy, monolithic vision of ‘Ancient Egypt’ that has been around for at least 200 years.

I suspect our stories would be a lot more interesting.

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