Unwrapping mummy fascination

Public “unwrappings” of real mummified human remains — performed by both showmen and scientists as early as the 1600s — may have objectified exotic Egyptian artifacts. But they were also scientific investigations that revealed medical and
historical information about ancient life, says Kathleen Sheppard, assistant professor of history and political science.

Sheppard’s paper on 20th century Egyptologist Margaret Murray, the first woman to publicly unwrap a mummy, was published in the December issue of the journal Science in Context. She says Murray’s work is “poised between spectacle and science, drawing morbid public interest while also producing ground-breaking scientific work that continues to this day. These types of spectacles were highly engaging shows in which people were, to a certain degree, educated about different aspects of science both by showmen and scientists.”

Many Egyptologists focused on either “Egyptomania,” the fascination with all things Egypt, or “Egyptology,” the scientific study of Egyptian life, Sheppard says. But Murray combined the two, involving the public in scientific inquiry while at the same time correcting popular misconceptions.

“Murray tried to get the public to see that mummies weren’t magical, they were just preserved human remains to be studied and learned from,” Sheppard says. “In other words, rather than trying to separate the ’mania’ from the ‘ology,’ she wanted to bring reason and understanding to the mania.”

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