Facing the Dead

The Golden Mummies of Egypt return to Manchester Museum after three years touring the US and China. The exhibtion's curator describes how interpreting Egyptian funerary art has shifted over time

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Manchester Museum, part of the University of Manchester, is synonymous with Egyptian mummies. Ask a Mancunian taxi driver to take you to “the museum with the mummies and dinosaurs” and you’ll find it easily enough.

The exhibition reflects the obsessions, values and politics of the late nineteenth century

Since the first acquisition – and almost immediate unwrapping – of the mummified body of an ancient Egyptian woman named Asru by the Manchester Natural History Society in 1825, mummies have been a draw for visitors in the city. The urge has often been to reveal secrets, as if the ancient Egyptians had wrapped their dead as a gift to the curious of the future. Autopsies on complete mummies were performed in the name of science at Manchester up until the 1970s and the University of Manchester offers specialised courses in the analysis of ancient Egyptian human remains.

Today Manchester Museum cares for a world-class Egyptology collection of 18,000 objects. When the museum partially closed to begin a £15 million redevelopment in 2018, the opportunity was taken to create a major touring exhibition that would showcase this particularly strong area of the museum’s collection. With so much history wrapped up in viewing and analysing the ancient Egyptians, perhaps another exhibition on the subject of mummies may come as no surprise.

Golden Mummies of Egypt is not, however, simply about ancient Egypt. Instead, it examines ideas about the afterlife when Egypt was part of the Greek and Roman worlds (around 300BCE-200CE), ruled first by a dynasty of kings called Ptolemy (ending in the death of Queen Cleopatra VII in 30BCE) and followed by Roman emperors. The exhibition draws on Manchester Museum’s significant collection from this so-called Graeco-Roman period, which forms one of the best outside Cairo.

As well as the focus on funerary art of this time, the exhibition tells equally important stories about the ways in which objects were found and moved, and about museums more widely. The objects featured did not come to Manchester by chance. They derived principally from the excavations led by British archaeologist WM Flinders Petrie (1853-1942) at the site of Hawara, near the Faiyum lake (80km south-west of Cairo), in 1888, 1889 and 1911. The arrival of this collection in Europe was a result of “finds division”, a colonial system instituted by British and French authorities in Egypt in the 1880s, which allowed items considered surplus to those earmarked for the national museum in Cairo to be exported with their excavators and subsequently distributed to sponsors.

Manchester cotton industrialist and Egyptophile Jesse Haworth (1835-1920) financed Petrie’s excavations in Egypt for a number of years, an arrangement that resulted in Manchester Museum’s collection. The exhibition therefore reflects the obsessions, values and politics of the late 1800s and the early history of the museum itself.

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Haworth was first persuaded by the author and traveller Amelia B Edwards to finance Petrie to enable him to direct a dig at a site known to classical authors as the Labyrinth, and which was suspected to be located at the site of Hawara. At Hawara, Petrie’s Egyptian excavators found little remaining evidence for the Labyrinth structure but did uncover thousands of mummified bodies – a huge cemetery dating mainly to the Graeco-Roman period. Although only a small percentage were decorated, these numbered scores of mummies. Petrie was dismissive of the “gaudy” gilding and the “garbled” hieroglyphs of their outer coverings, which he put down to what he considered the distasteful mixing of Egyptian, Greek and Roman cultures. Yet Petrie was quick to realise that those decorated mummies he was allowed to take out of Egypt would interest potential sponsors, remarking that “their gaudiness may be attractive to British philistines”. He also arranged for lengths of linen mummy bandages, “soaked, cleaned and ironed”, to be sent back to the centres of the British textile industry – Petrie knew his market.

But what he was not aware of at the time was the ancient interpretation of what his workers were uncovering. Religious texts contemporary with the Graeco-Roman times, during which the wealthy dead had been buried at Hawara, spoke of the application of gold leaf as conferring and enhancing a divine status for those bodies that had gone through the expensive transformative ritual of mummification. Egyptian gods were believed to have skin made of gold. One text addresses the deceased, and states that the sun god “will make your skin flourish with gold”. None of the glittering mummy masks were modelled on the features of the deceased while they were alive, as many people tend to assume; instead they depict the individual traits of the dead as having coalesced with a generic image of the divine.

In addition to the “golden mummies”, Petrie’s workers found dozens of wrapped bodies that had thin wooden panels placed over their faces, painted with strikingly life-like images: the so-called Faiyum portraits. Blending Egyptian, Roman and Greek styles, these are among the most captivating images from the ancient world.

These panel “portraits” depict at best the highly idealised features of the deceased, and are likely to have been created posthumously. It is very difficult for us to know the impression they would have created for their original viewers. Excavations by Petrie’s teams, and subsequent fieldwork in Egypt, imply that Graeco-Roman mummified bodies were not always buried immediately after their funerals, as had been the Egyptian custom. Many seem to have remained accessible for some time – perhaps for generations – to allow living people to interact with their ancestors before eventually being interred collectively.

Modern assumptions of the human image may be a barrier to interpretation here. Museum visitors today frequently “recognise” features of people we know in the mummy panels. We are so saturated with reproductions of the human face, and so aware of what we ourselves look like, that we assume these “portraits” must represent people as they actually appeared in life – a mimetic likeness. Yet the contemporary gilded mummy masks and religious texts emphasise that individual human characteristics were to be subsumed into a perfected, eternal divine image – a face to be shared with the Egyptian deities. We should therefore be cautious about reading these painted faces as if they were photographs when they fulfilled the same function as the mould-made and mass-produced masks, and reflected godliness rather than a simple reality.

While Manchester Museum has been well known for research on Egyptian mummies for over a century, Golden Mummies of Egypt attempts to reflect on – and constructively critique – a default narrative of science improving understanding. The exhibition content does not include facial reconstructions or visualisation technology using CT-scans or X-rays for the eight mummified people on display, nor does it attempt to provide information on age, preservation or health complaints of these individuals. It deliberately resists the urge to look inside. Instead, by focusing on the outer layers of decoration, we attempt to highlight the ancient intention of transforming the human body into a scintillating divine form, and the multicultural means of achieving that aim.

Campbell Price is curator of Egypt and Sudan at Manchester Museum, exhibition curator for Golden Mummies of Egypt and author of the accompanying book. He tweets @EgyptMcr. Golden Mummies of Egypt, designed in partnership with Nomad Exhibitions, runs from 18 February until the end of 2023 at Manchester Museum and is free, but booking is advised (manchestermuseumshop.com). An accompanying book is published by Manchester University Press (manchesteruniversitypress.co.uk)

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