9 Strange Uses for Ancient Egyptian Mummies

Coffins holding mummies on display at the Field Museum in Chicago
Coffins holding mummies on display at the Field Museum in Chicago
Scott Olson/Getty Images

Most people have only ever seen a genuine Egyptian mummy in a museum; fictional mummies, of course, are all over film, literature, and Halloween costume stores. But in centuries past, mummies were put to a variety of inventive uses: for art and commerce, science and entertainment, and possibly even to provide paper.

Many of these uses and abuses stemmed from the Egyptomania that gripped Europe and America throughout the 19th century, set off by Napoleon's invasion of the country in 1798 and nourished by a string of amazing archeological discoveries. By the 1830s, upper-class Western Europeans and Americans began flooding Egypt in search of treasure, and mummies became a chief prize—treated as a symbol of the entire country’s exotic allure, and the "mysteries of the Orient" more generally. The mummy madness progressed to the point where, Egyptologist Beverley Rogers notes, in 1833 monk Father Géramb remarked to the then-ruler of Egypt, Mohammed Ali, “it would be hardly respectable, on one’s return from Egypt, to present oneself in Europe without a mummy in one hand and a crocodile in the other.”

Read on for some lessons in just how disturbingly inventive our great-great-grandparents could be.

1. FOR MEDICINE

Strange as it may seem, people in early modern Europe frequently practiced a kind of cannibalism for health. According to historian Richard Sugg, "Up until the late 18th century, the human body was a widely accepted therapeutic agent. The most popular treatments involved flesh, bone, or blood, along with a variety of moss sometimes found on human skulls."

Mummy, often sold as “mummia” (a confusing word that also refers to the bitumen with which mummies were embalmed), was applied to the skin or powdered and mixed into drinks as a treatment for bruising and other ailments. The belief may have come from ancients such as Pliny the Elder, who wrote that the bitumen used to embalm mummies offered healing powers. Sugg says that adherents included the French King Francis I, as well as Francis Bacon, who wrote that “mummy has great force in staunching of blood.” Mummia became such big business that there was a trade in fake mummies—made from executed criminals, slaves, beggars, and camels—just to keep up with demand, much like today’s market for counterfeit pharmaceuticals.

2. AT PARTIES

Need a theme idea for your next get-together? Why not take a page (or a rag?) from the Victorians and hold a mummy unrolling party, which is exactly what it sounds like. While the craze is sometimes overstated—it’s not like every aristocrat watched Tutankhamen’s cousin unwrapped over sherry in his drawing room—these parties were a not-uncommon feature of 19th century British life, especially among those who fancied themselves the more scholarly sort.

According to Rogers, mummy unwrapping as a social event really got going in Britain starting in the 1820s, thanks to a circus performer-turned-antiquities salesman named Giovanni Belzoni. Belzoni made a name for himself in Egypt-obsessed circles after arranging for the removal of several massive Egyptian artifacts on behalf of British consul to Egypt Henry Salt. In 1821, he held a public mummy unwrapping as part of an exhibition of Egyptian antiquities near Piccadilly Circus. The event proved an enormous success—over 2000 people attended on opening day alone. One member of the audience was London surgeon and scholar Thomas Pettigrew, who was so enamored of the spectacle he began holding his own public, ticketed unrollings, usually with an accompanying lecture.

While there was occasionally an element of serious science (Pettigrew went on to write the first book on mummy studies, A History of Egyptian Mummies, in 1834, and earn the nickname "Mummy Pettigrew”), the gawk-factor was usually a larger draw. Not only were the mummies themselves fascinating (if a bit pungent), their wrappings often contained valuable talismans and amulets lying in and around the body.

Members of the upper class copied Pettigrew, and the idea spread, with unwrapping events held both at large venues and in private homes. According to Rogers, "Often the mummy came from the host’s own collection and invitations were such as those issued by Lord Londesborough in 1850, who promised a ‘mummy from Thebes to be unrolled at half-past two.'" Consider it the Victorian version of unboxing.

3. AS PAINT PIGMENT

It sounds like an urban myth, but it isn't: starting around the 16th century, a pigment called mummy brown, made from ground-up mummies, was a popular choice for European artists. Delacroix used it, as did British portraitist Sir William Beechey, and it was a special favorite of the Pre-Raphaelites. According to scholar Philip McCouat, in 1712 "an artist supply shop rather jokily called 'A La Momie' opened in Paris, selling paints and varnish as well as powdered mummy, incense and myrrh." To be fair, not everyone knew what they were painting with. When artist Edward Burne-Jones found out, he held a little funeral for a tube of paint in his back garden.

4. AS INTERIOR DECOR

Trips to Egypt were so popular among the upper classes of the 19th century that mummies were often displayed back home as souvenirs, usually in the drawing room or study, and occasionally even in bedrooms. Rogers notes that mummy hands, feet and heads were frequently displayed around the house, often in glass domes on mantelpieces. (The writer Gustave Flaubert was even known to keep a mummy's foot on his desk.) Mummies were displayed at businesses, too: One Chicago candy store reportedly attracted customers in 1886 by showing off a mummy said to be “Pharaoh's daughter who discovered Moses in the bulrushes.”

5. FOR PAPER

This a contentious issue among those who study the history of papermaking, but according to some scholars, paper mills on the East Coast of the United States imported mummy wrappings as source material during the mid 19th century. (It’s not quite as crazy as it might sound: a boom in printed materials vastly increased America's appetite for paper in the early 19th century, and wood pulp was only introduced after a rag shortage in the 1850s. Mummies, meanwhile, were relatively plentiful.) The story is debatable: sources are vague, and while historians have discovered newspapers and broadsides that claim to be printed on mummy wrappings, the claim isn’t bullet-proof: it could be a joke, or, as often the case with mummies, a crafty publicity gimmick.

By the way, a related story that mummies were burned for railroad fuel is almost certainly a joke dreamed up by Mark Twain. In The Innocents Abroad, Twain described Egyptian railroad companies using fuel “composed of mummies three thousand years old, purchased by the ton or by the graveyard for that purpose,” and reported that “sometimes one hears the profane engineer call out pettishly, ‘D—n these plebeians, they don't burn worth a cent—pass out a King!’”

6. As Stage Props

Mummies are a familiar symbol of romantic ghastliness in literature and horror movies, of course, but their use in stage magic is less well known today. Yet the same sense of exoticism and dread that made them work so well onscreen also made them effective as stage props. It didn't even matter whether they were real.

In the 1920s, an elaborate fake known as "The Luxor Mummy" appeared in stage shows with a magician named Tampa. According to The New York Times, the mummy originally belonged to vaudeville theatre owner Alexander Pantages, "who claimed that it was a seer and prophet named Ra Ra Ra." When the mummy "performed" with Tampa, it would answer questions communicated through a telephone-like device. (No word on how an ancient Egyptian was able to speak English.)

7. FOR FERTILIZER

Animals were mummified by the millions in ancient Egypt to provide offerings for the gods and goddesses. Ibis and baboons were sacred to Thoth, raptors to Horus, and cats to the goddess Bastet. Cat mummies were particularly plentiful—so plentiful, in fact, that in the late 19th century, English companies bought them from Egypt for agricultural purposes. By one account, a single company purchased about 180,000 cat mummies weighing 19 tons, which were then pulverized into fertilizer and spread on the fields of England. One of the skulls from that shipment now resides at the natural history department of the British Museum.

8. AS FAKE RELICS

After Joan of Arc was burned at the stake in 1431, her executioners were determined that no trace of her would remain—they burned her body a second time, then dumped what was left in the Seine. But in 1867, a jar labeled "Remains found under the stake of Joan of Arc, virgin of Orleans," turned up in the attic of a Paris pharmacy. It was recognized by the church as genuine, and later put on display at a museum run by the Archdiocese of Tours. However, in 2007, tests conducted by forensic scientist Philippe Charlier revealed that the contents of the jar predated Joan by thousands of years: they were actually a human rib and a cat femur, both from ancient Egyptian mummies.

9. FOR FUNDRAISING

Massachusetts General Hospital was the site of the first public surgery using modern anesthetic, which took place in 1846 in an amphitheater that became known as the Ether Dome. But the place is also home to something you don’t usually see in a hospital—an Egyptian mummy.

The well-preserved Padihershef arrived at Massachusetts General in 1823 as a gift from the city of Boston. The mummy had originally been given to the city by a Dutch merchant in the early 19th century (he reportedly purchased it to impress his in-laws), and the city gave it to the then-fledgling Massachusetts General Hospital to help it raise funds. According to the hospital, Padihershef was put on display at "Mr. Doggett’s Repository of Arts" in Boston, where "hundreds of people paid $0.25 to see the first complete human Egyptian mummy in the U.S." Padihershef then went on a year-long East Coast tour to raise even more cash for the hospital, before taking his place in the Ether Dome in time to witness the history-making surgery on October 16, 1846. He’s still there today.

11 Facts About John James Audubon

John James Audubon Center at Mill Grove and the Montgomery County Audubon Collection, Audubon.org // Public Domain
John James Audubon Center at Mill Grove and the Montgomery County Audubon Collection, Audubon.org // Public Domain

You might be familiar with the name John James Audubon from the bird conservation-focused Audubon Society—which he had nothing to do with founding—or the famous illustrations in his groundbreaking natural history collection, The Birds of America. But there are a few surprising bits of history about this quintessential American naturalist ... like the fact that, originally, he was neither American nor named Audubon.

1. John James Audubon immigrated to America to avoid serving in Napoleon Bonaparte’s army.

John James Audubon was born Jean Rabin in April 1785 in the French colony of Saint-Domingue (now Haiti). He was an illegitimate son of a French naval officer/plantation owner, Jean Audubon, and a chambermaid named Jeanne Rabin, who died soon after he was born. In 1791, after Jean Audubon had returned to live in France, he arranged for his son and another illegitimate child to be sent there so he could formally adopt them. Jean Rabin was renamed Jean-Jacques Fougère Audubon.

In 1803, his father sent 18-year-old Jean-Jacques Audubon to Pennsylvania to avoid his conscription into Napoleon’s armies. There, he anglicized his name to John James Audubon.

2. America’s leading ornithologist had a beef with John James Audubon.

Eastern screech-owls from John James Audubon's Birds of America
John James Audubon Center at Mill Grove and the Montgomery County Audubon Collection, Audubon.org // Public Domain

In 1810, before he became a full-time artist, Audubon and his business partner Ferdinand Rozier owned a shop in Louisville, Kentucky. One day, in strolled Alexander Wilson, an eminent ornithologist who was seeking subscriptions for his magnum opus in progress, American Ornithology. (At the time it was common for authors to seek subscriptions from members of the public that would pay for the completion of the work.) As Audubon looked at the engravings, Rozier said in French, “My dear Audubon, what induces you to subscribe to this work? Your drawings are certainly far better.” Audubon ended up taking Wilson on a few hunting trips, but did not subscribe. Wilson would later write about Louisville, “Science or literature has not one friend in this place.”

While Wilson died in 1813—leaving his book unfinished—Audubon was just getting started traveling the country and illustrating birds. When he arrived in Philadelphia, the country’s intellectual capital, he got a chilly reception from Wilson’s colleagues. “[Naturalist] George Ord was so afraid that Audubon would totally bury the great, respected Alexander Wilson,” Roberta Olson, curator of drawings at the New-York Historical Society, told Mental Floss in 2017, that he “arranged for Philadelphia to basically close down [to Audubon], so he could not publish there.” The snub forced Audubon to seek his own subscribers in the UK when he decided to publish The Birds of America.

3. Another Bonaparte tried to help John James Audubon’s artistic career.

In 1824, Audubon met Napoleon’s nephew Charles Lucien Bonaparte, a respected ornithologist. Bonaparte was, ironically, working to complete Wilson’s American Ornithology and was interested in Audubon’s art. Bonaparte even bought his drawing of a great crow-blackbird (now called the boat-tailed grackle) for use in his book. But according to legend, when Bonaparte took Audubon’s drawing to be engraved, the engraver sniffed, “I think your work extraordinary for one self-taught, but we in Philadelphia are used to seeing very correct drawing.” The engraving was made nonetheless, and Bonaparte proclaimed it “a faithful representation of both sexes … drawn by that zealous observer of nature and skilful artist Mr. John J. Audubon.”

4. At first, nobody thought The Birds of America would succeed.

Green herons from John James Audubon's Birds of America
John James Audubon Center at Mill Grove and the Montgomery County Audubon Collection, Audubon.org // Public Domain

After Audubon’s lack of success in Philadelphia, he traveled to Europe to attempt to find subscribers and printers for the hundreds of bird paintings that would become the Birds of America in book form. Audubon had the idea to print his artwork life-size on double elephant paper, measuring around 39.5 inches by 26.5 inches. Initially, the reaction to Audubon’s plan was muted. A bookseller named Mr. Bohn explained that such a giant book would never sell, since it would take up so much space on a table that it would either shame all the other books or render the table useless.

But that was before he saw the drawings. Several days later Audubon met the bookseller again and showed him his work. “Mr. Bohn was at first simply surprised, then became enthusiastic, and finally said they must be published the full size of life,” Audubon wrote. The resulting book, featuring 435 engraved and hand-colored plates, is now one of the most expensive in the world. Rare copies sell at auction for around $10 million.

5. John James Audubon sparked a controversy about vultures …

Before Audubon, vultures had been lauded for their sense of smell. The 1579 text Euphues asks, “Doth not the eagle see clearer, the vulture smell better, the mole hear lightlier?” In the 1770s, Irish novelist Oliver Goldsmith called vultures “cruel, unclean, and indolent” but admitted that “their sense of smelling, however, is amazingly great.”

But in 1826, Audubon presented an “Account of the Habits of the Turkey Buzzard … with the view of exploding the opinion generally entertained of its extraordinary power of Smelling” at the Wernerian Natural History Society in Edinburgh. Audubon described how he could sneak up very close behind a vulture and it wouldn’t fly away until he showed himself. He then ran experiments. In the first, he filled a deer skin with grass to approximate a recently deceased animal and observed a vulture attack the odorless prey. In the second, he hid a putrefying hog carcass in some grass, and no vulture found it, even though the stench prevented Audubon from getting within 30 yards of it.

Most of the Edinburgh crowd agreed with Audubon, but eccentric explorer and naturalist Charles Waterton demurred. Waterton had written of his own experiments in which turkey vultures would take away lizards and frogs “as soon as they began to stink.” But, according to zoologist Lucy Cooke, Waterton “was said to have a habit of hiding under the table at dinner parties to bite his guests’ legs like a dog, and delighted in elaborate, taxidermy-based practical jokes. A particularly inspired prank involved his fashioning an effigy of one of his (many) enemies out of a howler monkey’s buttocks.” So there’s that.

6. … and even Charles Darwin got involved.

Baltimore orioles from John James Audubon's Birds of America
John James Audubon Center at Mill Grove and the Montgomery County Audubon Collection, Audubon.org // Public Domain

Scientists took sides in what the London Quarterly Review called “the vulture controversy.” Nosarians believed vultures used their sense of smell, and anti-nosarians believed they used sight. In South Carolina, some of Audubon’s supporters commissioned a painting of a dead sheep and placed offal 10 feet away from it outdoors. Vultures attacked the painting. Even Charles Darwin conducted experiments on whether vultures could smell.

Later research [PDF] suggested that Audubon likely mistook black vultures (Coragyps atratus), which primarily use sight, for turkey vultures (Cathartes aura), which actually use smell to locate carrion. Cooke notes that Audubon described animals that seem to occasionally hunt live animals, which indicates black vultures, not turkey vultures. Most New World vultures use sight, and only a few use smell. Back in the 19th century, Waterton had been increasingly shunned for his anti-nosarian views. “Which is a shame” Cooke writes, “because he was right.”

7. John James Audubon discovered birds that don’t exist.

Audubon is credited with discovering around 25 species and 12 subspecies, but some of his other birds were later identified as being either immature birds or sexually dimorphic specimens. Beyond these, there are five “mystery birds” that appear nowhere but in Audubon’s watercolors: the carbonated swamp warbler, Cuvier’s kinglet, Townsend’s finch (or Townsend’s bunting), small-headed flycatcher, and blue mountain warbler. The Audubon Society also includes the Bartram's vireo in the list. These unidentifiable birds were probably hybrids or known birds with aberrant colorations.

8. John James Audubon might have been the first bird bander.

Great egret from John James Audubon's Birds of America
John James Audubon Center at Mill Grove and the Montgomery County Audubon Collection, Audubon.org // Public Domain

Soon after arriving in the U.S., Audubon attached tied some silver thread around the legs of Eastern phoebes (he called them pewee flycatchers). The birds left the area in October. When they returned the following spring, Audubon found two still sporting silver threads. His experiment is often called the first bird banding experiment in the western hemisphere.

A recent article in Archives of Natural History casts doubt on the story, though. Audubon claimed 40 percent of his tagged eastern phoebes returned home, but a larger scale study found only around 1.5 percent of banded birds returned. Audubon may have been in France at the time of the phoebes’ return, too.

9. John James Audubon illustrated a long-lost New Jersey bank note.

Generations of Audubon scholars have hunted for a mysterious bank note that Audubon allegedly illustrated in 1824. In his journals, Audubon wrote, “I drew … a small grouse to be put on a bank-note belonging to the state of New Jersey.” It’s believed that this was his first engraved bird illustration, but no one was able to find any evidence of its existence—until 2010, when historians Robert M. Peck and Eric P. Newman found the sample sheets the engraver had produced with stock images for the currency. Among the George Washingtons and bald eagles was a little heath hen. Peck told NPR, "A little scurrying grouse rushing into a bed of grass is not the kind of confident image that a bank president wants to convey,” so a bald eagle probably replaced it on the currency.

Similarly, heath hens went extinct in 1932, but some researchers have proposed bringing them back.

10. John James Audubon had nothing to do with the Audubon Society.

Jays from John James Audubon's Birds of America
John James Audubon Center at Mill Grove and the Montgomery County Audubon Collection, Audubon.org // Public Domain

After Audubon published The Birds of America and established himself as America’s premier naturalist, he bought land and a mansion in rural upper Manhattan in New York City. Audubon died there in 1851, but his wife, Lucy, continued to live in the estate later known as Audubon Park. In 1857, businessman George Blake Grinnell and his family moved to Audubon Park, and Lucy became a teacher for his son, 7-year-old George Bird Grinnell. Grinnell later became a respected naturalist, editor-in-chief of outdoors magazine Forest and Stream, and an advocate for conservation.

In 1886, he founded the Audubon Society and the next year The Audubon Magazine, inspired by his childhood classes with Lucy, whom he remembered as a “beautiful, white-haired old lady with extraordinary poise and dignity; most kindly and patient and affectionate, but a strict disciplinarian of whom all the children stood in awe.” He also cofounded the conservation-minded Boone and Crockett Club with Theodore Roosevelt. But by 1889, the pressures of running multiple journals and societies proved too much, and the Audubon Society folded.

11. Two women, inspired by fashionable hats, revived the Audubon Society.

In 1896, Boston socialites Harriet Lawrence Hemenway and her cousin Minna B. Hall were horrified after reading an account of the plume-hunting industry—a trade that killed millions of wild birds to supply feathers for millinery. They resolved to stop their fellow fashionistas from wearing wild feathers. The two founded the Massachusetts Audubon Society and sent a letter to Forest and Stream to ask people to take a pledge “not to purchase or encourage the use of feathers of wild birds for ornamentation.” More regional Audubon Societies sprang up around the country, and in 1940 they combined to form the National Audubon Society. Today the organization focuses on science-based conservation and education to protect birds, continuing John James Audubon’s legacy into the 21st century.

The Mystery of the Missing Keepers at the Flannan Isles Lighthouse

iStock.com/Westbury
iStock.com/Westbury

In December 1900, a boat called Hesperus set sail for the island of Eilean Mor, one of the seven islets (also known as the “Seven Hunters”) of the Flannan Isles off the coast of northwestern Scotland. Captain James Harvey was tasked with delivering a relief lighthouse keeper as part of a regular rotation. The journey was delayed a few days by bad weather, and when Harvey and his crew finally arrived, it was clear that something was awry. None of the normal preparations at the landing dock had been made, the flagstaff was bare, and none of the keepers came to greet the Hesperus. The keepers, as it turned out, weren’t on the island at all. All three of them had vanished.

Eilean Mor had its peculiarities. The island’s only permanent residents were sheep, and herders referred to it as “the other country,” believing it to be a place touched by something paranormal. Eilean Mor had long elicited a sort of fearful reverence in its visitors; the main draw to the remote location was a chapel built in the 7th century by St. Flannan. Even those who never prayed were moved to worship while on Eilean Mor. Superstitions and rituals—like circling the church’s ruins on your knees—were adopted by those passing through, and many considered Eilean Mor to have an indefinable aura that could not be ignored.

What the Hesperus crew did find at the lighthouse was a set of perplexing clues. The replacement keeper, Joseph Moore, was the first to investigate, and reported an all-encompassing sense of dread as he ascended the cliff toward the newly constructed lighthouse. Inside, the kitchen table contained plates of meat, potatoes, and pickles. The clock was stopped, and there was an overturned chair nearby. The lamp was ready for lighting, and two of the three oilskin coats belonging to Thomas Marshall, James Ducat, and Donald McArthur were gone. The gate and door were firmly shut.

These clues only led to more questions. Why would one of the keepers have gone out without his coat—and for that matter, why would all three have left together at all when the rules forbade it? Someone needed to man the post at all times, so something unusual must have drawn them out. When Moore returned with his report, Harvey had the island searched. The hunt came up empty. The captain then sent a telegram to the mainland:

A dreadful accident has happened at Flannans. The three Keepers, Ducat, Marshall and the occasional have disappeared from the island. On our arrival there this afternoon no sign of life was to be seen on the Island.

Fired a rocket but, as no response was made, managed to land Moore, who went up to the Station but found no Keepers there. The clocks were stopped and other signs indicated that the accident must have happened about a week ago. Poor fellows they must been blown over the cliffs or drowned trying to secure a crane or something like that.

Night coming on, we could not wait to make something as to their fate.

I have left Moore, MacDonald, Buoymaster and two Seamen on the island to keep the light burning until you make other arrangements. Will not return to Oban until I hear from you. I have repeated this wire to Muirhead in case you are not at home. I will remain at the telegraph office tonight until it closes, if you wish to wire me.

Further investigations also led nowhere, though the lighthouse log book provided a new set of confounding details. On December 12, an entry from Marshall described “severe winds the likes of which I have never seen before in twenty years.” He wrote that Ducat had been quiet and McArthur had been crying, which would have been odd behavior for a man with a reputation as a tough and experienced seafarer. The next day, Marshall reported more storm details and wrote that all three of them had been praying—another odd bit of behavior from well-seasoned keepers in a brand-new, supposedly safe lighthouse. Strangest of all, there were no reported storms in the area on December 12th, 13, or 14—all should have been calm up until December 17. The last report in the book, from December 15, read: “Storm ended, sea calm. God is over all.”

Speculation ran wild. Was it something supernatural? Sea creatures? A case of madness and murder? A government operation? Foreign spies? Aliens? Ultimately, it was evidence outside the lighthouse that provided the most promising lead in explaining what had become of the three keepers. Over at the western landing platform, damage from the recent storms reached as high as 200 feet above sea level. Ropes that were usually affixed to a crate on a supply crane were littered about.

Robert Muirhead, superintendent of the Commissioners of Northern Lights, wrote in his official report:

I am of the opinion that the most likely explanation of this disappearance of the men is that they had all gone down on the afternoon of Saturday, 15 December to the proximity of the West landing, to secure the box with the mooring ropes, etc and that an unexpectedly large roller had come up on the island, and a large body of water going up higher than where they were and coming down upon them had swept them away with resistless force.

While this (or a similar approximation) seems possible, the explanation left considerable room for doubt. The lack of bodies, supposedly calm conditions, and sheer experience and know-how of the lighthouse keepers still hadn’t been accounted for, and never would be. In the years following, other keepers claimed to hear voices in the salty air screaming out the names of Thomas Marshall, James Ducat, and Donald McArthur.

In Mysterious Celtic Mythology in American Folklore, author Bob Curran writes: “For many local people, there was little doubt that they had been spirited into the otherworld.”

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