Mummy of a man
These Egyptian mummies are probably the first to be seen in Europe. In the 17th century, a traveller brought them to Rome, and later Augustus the Strong had the mummies purchased. The mummies are also special because they show portraits of the deceased, painted directly onto the linen wrapping. The precious gold jewellery illustrates their high status. The man, aged 25 to 30, and the woman, between 30 and 40, lived in the 3rd or 4th century in the metropolis of Memphis, then part of the Roman Empire. Both are painted like Romans, but they were still followers of the ancient Egyptian faith. This is evidenced, for example, by the traditional vulture goddess Nechbet, who protects the man's chest.
Greek historian Herodotus has left the most extensive contemporary description of the mummification process. Herodotus travelled through ancient Egypt in the fifth century BC. His writings provide details on the various methods used by the Egyptians to mummify their dead:
“As much as possible of the brain is extracted through the nostrils with an iron hook, and what the hook cannot reach is rinsed out with drugs; next the flank is laid open with a flint knife and the whole contents of the abdomen removed; the cavity is then thoroughly cleansed and washed out, first with palm wine and again with an infusion of powdered spices. After that, it is filled with pure bruised myrrh, cassia, and every other aromatic substance with the exception of frankincense, and sewn up again, after which the body is placed in natrum, covered over entirely, for seventy days – never longer. At the end of this period, which must not be exceeded, the body is washed and then wrapped from head to foot in linen cut into strips and smeared on the underside with gum …”
In 1615 Pietro della Valle, an erudite and wealthy Roman, brought the mummies from Egypt to Europe. While on a pilgrimage to the Holy Land, della Valle stopped off at the pyramids near Cairo.
In the Arab world, the village of Saqqara near Cairo was renowned as a centre trading a particular kind of goods – mummies. But the embalmed mummies were not just much sought after as precious antiquities, but also as a raw material for medicinal remedies. They were a source of a tar-like substance called mumia vera aegyptica. ‘Mummy’ is derived from the Arabic word ‘mummiya’, which actually refers to a type of bitumen. Mumia vera was a mixture of resins, ointments, oils and bitumen used to embalm bodies. Over time, the mixture became solid. In powder or crumbled form, mumia vera could be sold for a high price. Soon, it was also available from European apothecaries, especially since reputedly it could cure all manner of illnesses, or at least ease their symptoms.
On his visit to Egypt, Pietro della Valle was on hand when locals excavated the mummies on show here. He even had himself lowered into the tomb. While he was there, he also made provisions for his own first-aid travel kit by breaking off several chunks from a third mummy.
- Material & Technique
- Linen, stucco, painted and gilt, mummified body
- Late 3rd to mid- 4th cent. CE
- Inventory number
- Aeg 777