Unwrapping Egyptian mummies
Updated: May 5
Have you ever heard of mummy unwrapping parties? No? Well, I'm here to tell you these bizarre 19th century gatherings did exist! I just knew when I first read about them that I had to add something about mummy unwrapping parties to one of my books. And so I did, and I'm happy to send you that excerpt from Book Three (as yet unnamed) of the Irish Fortune Series today.
Read on to find out about some of the strange practices of days gone by...
“You were where?” Quin looked at his father, sure he must have misunderstood.
“At a mummy unwrapping party,” the baron said patiently, sinking into a chair in the drawing room, where they’d retired after supper.
“Oh, I’ve heard of those,” Alannah put in, making Quin gape at her instead.
“You mean…those actually exist?”
“Oh yes,” Alannah said as Quin finally dropped onto the seat he’d been hovering over. “My tutor, Mr Henderson, told me all about them. The mummy is slowly unwrapped before an audience, revealing myriad treasures buried within the bindings, not to mention the mummy itself.—But you were there, Wilfred, tell us about it!” She looked eagerly at the baron, who turned toward Quin.
“Such parties were very popular in the 30s, Quinton, with large assemblies gathering to witness the mummy’s unwrapping. But I suppose you wouldn’t have paid much attention to such things then.”
Quin nodded absently, thinking back to his youth, which was filled with dreams of military glory rather than the Egyptomania that had taken root in Europe since Napoleon’s invasion of Egypt. While the idea of mummified bodies and long-lost treasure was certainly appealing to an adolescent boy, Quin hadn’t been nearly as obsessed with the topic as some and had always assumed much of what he’d heard must be exaggerated.
“I’d never had opportunity to attend such an event before,” the baron went on, “and not much interest either, even when the practice became a little more subdued over the years. But when I received a personal invite to Lord Featherston’s private parlour to witness what he called…the unrolling of a mummy from Thebes at half-past two…well, my curiosity was piqued after all.”
“And?” Alannah leaned forward in her seat.
“Hm. It’s certainly something I’ll never forget. Featherston had Thomas Pettigrew himself perform the unwrapping.—He’s the surgeon and antiquarian who introduced such parties to the world,” the baron explained for Quin’s benefit. “The man quite lived up to his moniker, Mummy Pettigrew, and I dare say he took great pleasure in ruthlessly tearing off each layer of encrusted bandages to reveal the shrunken body beneath. Poor Mr Ackland was quite overcome by what he deemed the undignified treatment of human remains and stormed off, looking rather green.” He shrugged. “I’m not sure what else he would have expected at the unwrapping of a mummy but either way, his departure didn’t distract Pettigrew in the least.”
“What did the mummy look like?” Quin asked, not sure if he should be fascinated or horrified.
“Quite unlike any body I’d ever seen. Desiccated and gaunt…but clearly human, nonetheless. It did give me a strange feeling to gaze upon a face that hadn’t seen the light of day in thousands of years.” The baron was quiet for a moment before continuing. “Pettigrew was thrilled at the mummy’s excellent condition, as he called it, having informed us beforehand that such a thing could never be guaranteed.”
“And were there any hidden treasures?” Alannah asked.
“Several amulets—meant to protect the deceased and ensure their safe passage to the afterlife, or so Pettigrew told us. But some of the linens the mummy was wrapped in were adorned with a great number of mysterious symbols that had the man quite beside himself with excitement.”
“Hieroglyphs?” Quin found he was rather engrossed in the topic himself by now.
His father nodded. “He said they were spells from the Book of the Dead, which were supposed to aid the deceased on their journey.”
“He was able to decipher the symbols?”
“Oh yes, Pettigrew quite prided himself on his abilities.”
“Did he tell you how the symbols were decoded in the first place?” Alannah asked, eyes bright with excitement.
“He did but I shall leave it to you to enlighten the ignorant among us.” The baron’s lips twitched into an amused smile, making Alannah’s cheeks turn pink.
“A stone was discovered several years ago,” she said to Quin, “inscribed with what turned out to be the same text in hieroglyphs, Greek and a third language, which was used to interpret the meaning of the Egyptian symbols—or at least a number of them.”
“Precisely,” the baron said. “Pettigrew told us the pharaohs who were descended from the Greek-speaking conquerors of Egypt still used the Greek language at the time, while hieroglyphs had become reserved for priests and temples by then. That turned out to be rather a stroke of luck as it meant the decree issued by the pharaoh was inscribed in both hieroglyphs and Greek, allowing for the hieroglyph’s translation.”
“What about the third language?” Quin asked, intrigued.
“Pettigrew said there was some speculation that the third language may be the written form of the time’s common tongue.”
“It certainly was an enlightening afternoon,” the baron agreed.
“Fascinating and enlightening no doubt,” Alannah said, “but I’m not sure I’d want to be unwrapped in front of an audience if I were the mummy in question.”
Quin grinned. “No, I suppose not.”
“Neither would I,” the baron said. “Then again, being unwrapped in front of an audience is a far better fate than some other mummies have had to endure. Just think, being ground up into questionable medicine or ending up on an artist’s palette as a pigment of mummy brown. So much for resting in peace!”
If you want to read more I'm afraid you'll still have to wait a while until I've finished writing Book Three. In the meantime, though, if you haven't read Book Two yet, find out here how you can get your free electronic copy of Beneath the Darkening Clouds.
by Juliane Weber (@Writer_JW) 28 April 2023 [subscribe on the main page]
About Juliane Weber
Juliane is a scientist turned historical fiction writer, and author of the Irish Fortune Series. Her stories take readers on action-packed romantic adventures amid the captivating scenery and folklore of 19th century Ireland.
Visit Juliane’s website to find out more.
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