The Wrapped Body: Linen, Concealment, and Mummification in Ancient Egypt

Lead Research Organisation: University of East Anglia
Department Name: Art, Media and American Studies

Abstract

This project investigates the use of linen textiles as the material for wrapping - from mummy bandages to shrouded gods, and from temple veils to royal costumes. In ancient Egypt, wrapping and shrouding the body - whether living or dead, human or divine - was a cultural practice revealing how the Egyptians thought about the human body and how they experienced the sacred. Wrapping also helps us understand Egyptian ideas about 'secret' knowledge and initiation, and the role secrecy plays in the organization of a complex society.

The wrapping of bodies both concealed them and gave them power. The act of wrapping parallels other features of Egyptian society; for instance, the physical space inside temples, tombs, and palaces was designed to restrict access. Offerings in temples, or objects that were placed in tombs, including mirrors or statues, were often wrapped up, and the statues of gods were wrapped in fresh linen every morning and evening. Several aspects of learning were described as 'secret', such as reading and writing (fewer than 5% of the population were literate), art and manufacturing techniques, and mummification itself. The Egyptians also 'wrapped' the surfaces of buildings by decorating them with elaborate images and texts, and wrapping played a key role in medical treatments (e.g. bandaging wounds) as well as magic, where spells could be spoken over linen and knotted up to help them work.

Although human mummies are the best-known example of Egyptian wrapping practice, European interest in mummies has focused on their unwrapping, which physically reverses the ancient Egyptian ritual. Archaeologists often recorded how statues or other objects were wrapped when they found them, but the archaeologists usually unwrapped the objects and discarded the wrapping. In this context, it is also important to evaluate why and how the 19th and 20th century unwrapping of ancient remains relates to Europe's colonization of Egypt. Such destructive practices, and the display of unwrapped mummies in museums, are an ongoing legacy of this historical period, because owning and having power over the ancient remains helped justify owning and having power over Egypt itself in colonial times.

By analyzing wrapping and concealment in ancient Egypt as well as our own culture's practice of unwrapping the Egyptians, this project considers Egyptian mummies from the positive viewpoint of the ancient Egyptians, not as macabre objects of curiosity. Studying mummies and other wrapped bodes in this way offers essential new insights into both ancient Egyptian culture and our own.

Planned Impact

This research project on the wrapped body in ancient Egypt will inform developments in professional practice in the UK and international museum sector, enhance public debate about the treatment of Egyptian mummies, and engage the wider public in a lively and informative way, with the potential to develop a better understanding of the relationship between ancient, colonial, and contemporary Egypt.

The project sets the unwrapping of Egyptian mummies in the framework of postcolonial studies, since 19th- and early 20th-century unwrappings took place in the context of colonization and contributed to then-current discourse on racial classification and gender difference, which can be documented through the publications of archaeologists such as W.M. Flinders Petrie, the first chair of Egyptian archaeology at University College London. The research is revealing that wrapping the body in linen was inalienable to the ancient Egyptian concept of what a 'mummy' was and what powers and cultural meanings the mummy had. However, neither the colonial context nor the ancient Egyptian perspective on wrapping has contributed to museum displays and interpretation. The research project can help address this oversight by enhancing debate within the museum profession and helping to inform relevant policies (cf. the DCMS report Guidance for the Care of Human Remains in Museums, 2005), effected through the dissemination of the research amongst curators and other museum professionals. In the UK, the professional network ACCES (Association of Curators of Collections of Egypt and Sudan) holds regular workshops attended by specialist curators and museum educators, where the PI plans to present the research during the AHRC-funded fellowship. Presenting the research in trade publications such as the Museums Journal or Museum Practice can also bring relevant parts of the project to bear on developments in professional practice.

The widespread popular appeal of Egyptology, and mummies in particular, offers an opportunity for public engagement on the basis of this research, by articulating and contextualizing issues around the collecting, study, and display of Egyptian mummies. The principal investigator will use existing press contacts, and the press office of the University of East Anglia, to target print, web, and broadcast media, for instance by publishing in periodicals such as Archaeology, BBC History, the Times Higher Education, and the Times Literary Supplement. The PI will also offer public lectures presenting the research, through regional archaeology and Egyptology societies, the Classical Association of the UK, and local and national museums, including the Sainsbury Centre for Visual Arts (SCVA) at UEA. The research may also contribute to INSET training for primary and secondary school teachers, organized in conjunction with the Education office of the SCVA. In addition, the research outcomes will be presented in a public lecture series organized by the School of World Art Studies in central Norwich, and will be incorporated in outreach talks to secondary schools in East Anglia, both during the period of AHRC-funded leave and in subsequent years.

Publications

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Riggs C (2016) Beautiful Burials, Beautiful Skulls: The Aesthetics of the Egyptian Mummy in The British Journal of Aesthetics

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Riggs C (2016) The body in the box: archiving the Egyptian mummy in Archival Science

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Riggs C (2013) Colonial Visions in Museum Worlds

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Riggs C (2016) AN AUTOPSIC ART: DRAWINGS OF 'DR GRANVILLE'S MUMMY' IN THE ROYAL SOCIETY ARCHIVES. in Notes and records of the Royal Society of London

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Riggs Christina (2014) Unwrapping Ancient Egypt

 
Description This research introduced a new way of thinking about mummification in ancient Egypt - and offered an important critical look at how mummies have been studied in the past. The wrapping of mummies (and other sacred objects) has been overlooked in the rush to study the dead bodies themselves. This medical approach to mummies developed in the early 19th century alongside the professionalization of surgery and anatomy. It emphasized ancient Egyptians for their perceived 'race', their health problems, and their sexual characteristics.

In ancient Egypt, however, mummification was one of the most sacred, and secret, religious rituals, and my research has looked especially at the use of linen textiles as part of the ritual. Statues in temples were also wrapped and anointed, like mummies. Linen uniquely served this wrapping purpose: certain kinds of cloth were valued for their life-renewing properties. As an agricultural product (from the flax plant), and because textiles were mainly processed by women, linen symbolized rebirth, making it well-suited to wrapping the dead and the statues of the gods.

It's important to realize that archaeology in Egypt, and the way Western museums collected and displayed Egyptian objects, was part and parcel of the colonial system. The interpretation of mummies reflected commonly held views at the time - about the superiority of the West and of 'whites', for instance. The assumption that ancient Egypt 'belongs' to the West still underlies the way many people - academics and the general public - still think about the ancient past, as if the past can be cut off from the present. By looking at mummies and linen wrappings in ancient Egypt, I tried to show that this is impossible: the past and the present are entwined. and we have to work to overcome the inequalities of that past in order to contribute to a better future for ourselves and for Egypt today.
Exploitation Route The research could be taken up by museums, to help them re-evaluate the ways in which they present mummified human remains in their collections. Within the fields of Egyptology and archaeology, the research should also help push forward a much-needed de-colonisation of the subject, with more critical and historically situated understanding of how our ideas about ancient Egypt have been formed - and the impact they still have today.
Sectors Education,Culture, Heritage, Museums and Collections

URL http://www.bloomsbury.com/uk/unwrapping-ancient-egypt-9780857856777/
 
Description I think the impact of this research will take time to manifest itself - museums (one target for impact) are slow-moving organizations, but I am confident that the research and its dissemination are part of a growing momentum for academia and cultural organizations to address explicitly their colonial pasts, and in the case of ancient Egypt, to make concrete changes to displays and interpretation activities.
First Year Of Impact 2014
Sector Culture, Heritage, Museums and Collections
Impact Types Cultural

 
Description Evans-Pritchard Lectureship
Amount £5,000 (GBP)
Organisation University of Oxford 
Department All Souls College
Sector Academic/University
Country United Kingdom
Start 04/2012 
End 05/2012
 
Description Mid-Career Fellowship
Amount £97,879 (GBP)
Organisation The British Academy 
Sector Academic/University
Country United Kingdom
Start 01/2015 
End 12/2015
 
Description Visiting Fellowship
Amount £2,000 (GBP)
Organisation University of Oxford 
Department All Souls College
Sector Academic/University
Country United Kingdom
Start 01/2015 
End 03/2015
 
Description Research network, 'Tales from the crypt: Museum storage and meaning' 
Organisation Indian-European Advanced Research Network (IEARN)
Country France 
Sector Academic/University 
PI Contribution I was an invited speaker at a closed workshop this network held in London, and I hope the collaboration will continue in future.
Collaborator Contribution I spoke about the storage of ancient Egyptian human remains, and the ethical, practical, and theoretical issues raised by this particular class of museum object.
Impact The network participants are drawn from a range of disciplines, in academic, museums, and the cultural field. Impacts are still in progress, and may be an explicit focus of the next network meeting.
Start Year 2014
 
Description Research network, 'The ethics and aesthetics of archaeology' 
Organisation Arts & Humanities Research Council (AHRC)
Country United Kingdom 
Sector Public 
PI Contribution I was an invited participant for a workshop on the theme of 'The Return of Aesthetics to Archaeology', speaking about conflicts between ancient and modern aesthetics of Egyptian mummification.
Collaborator Contribution The network's efforts are ongoing (a final workshop/conference was being held in November 2014).
Impact The network was/is multi-disciplinary between philosophy and archaeology. I am waiting to hear from the PIs about specific impact routes.
Start Year 2013
 
Description Research network, 'Utopian Archives' 
Organisation Arts & Humanities Research Council (AHRC)
Country United Kingdom 
Sector Public 
PI Contribution I participated in two workshops organized by this research network, and have submitted an article currently under review for a publication that directly arises from the network.
Collaborator Contribution My contribution has helped bring museum work into the discussion of the archive, while other partners in the network have helped inform my theoretical engagement with the subject.
Impact Article currently under review for a special journal issue. Disciplines include archaeology, anthropology, museum studies, and art history.
Start Year 2012
 
Description Blog entry, Looking for Tutankhamun 
Form Of Engagement Activity A magazine, newsletter or online publication
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Public/other audiences
Results and Impact Just published - waiting for comments!

Too soon to say.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2014
URL http://blog.oup.com/2014/11/looking-for-tutankhamun/
 
Description Egypt Exploration Society study day 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach Regional
Primary Audience Public/other audiences
Results and Impact A day-long event, open to members of the public and in particular members of the Egypt Exploration Society - an educational charity established in 1882 to fund, promote, and disseminate archaeology in Egypt. My research project has used records of the Society, and critiqued it as well - and the study day drew 25 participants to hear about the results of my research. This included a discussion about issues relating to research and display of mummified remains - and I chose this output specifically to target the audience of 'armchair Egyptologists' who are not normally exposed to critical analysis of the subject.

The Society reported that two new members joined as a result of the event.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2012
 
Description Lunchtime talk (ProBus) 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach Local
Primary Audience Public/other audiences
Results and Impact Lunchtime talk to a Norwich-based ProBus (Professional and Business Men) group, consisting of around 80 members.

There were some controversial questions afterwards! But that led to a stimulating discussion - and several people in the audience said it was one of the best talks the group had had.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2011
 
Description Making mummies make sense: Archaeology, museums and the unwrapped object 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach National
Primary Audience Postgraduate students
Results and Impact Seminar, 'Egyptian World' series, Dept. of Archaeology, University of Cambridge

My talk generated considerable discussion after the event and brought the work to the attention of academic colleagues as well, who have since invited me to speak at other events or advise their students.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2011
 
Description Opinion article in Times Higher Education 
Form Of Engagement Activity A magazine, newsletter or online publication
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Public/other audiences
Results and Impact This publication, entitled 'We've been here before', was a timely response to the Egyptian uprising in January-February 2011, and related my research to events in Cairo. It was further disseminated through email discussion lists and cross-postings on blogs.

I received several emails - from other academics and professionals - and I have seen the article referred to in publications, as a rare example of an archaeologist speaking out on this subject.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2011
 
Description Press release, University of East Anglia 
Form Of Engagement Activity A press release, press conference or response to a media enquiry/interview
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Media (as a channel to the public)
Results and Impact UEA issued a press release to coincide with the publication of my book Unwrapping Ancient Egypt.

The press release was picked up by a number of online sources, including Nature's online news magazine. In print, it appeared in BBC History magazine. Take-up was perhaps hampered by the timing of the release - which was the same day the British Museum launched press coverage of its summer 2014 mummy-scanning exhibition, 'Ancient Lives'.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2014
URL https://www.uea.ac.uk/mac/comm/media/press/2014/April/ancient-egypt-research
 
Description Public talk, 'Unwrapping Tutankhamun', Ashmolean Museum 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach Local
Primary Audience Public/other audiences
Results and Impact Positive reaction from audience, with several questions - even when I was trying to have tea in the museum cafe afterwards...!

Can't say - but museum reported a positive result, and I used the talk to highlight the activities of the Griffith Institute archive at the University of Oxford.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2014
 
Description Sixth-form study day, Norwich 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach Regional
Primary Audience Schools
Results and Impact Talk about Egyptology, colonialism, and the study of mummies, for a regional sixth-form conference held at Norwich Castle Museum. Aim was to encourage students to apply to universities, esp. for arts and humanities subjects.

Very positive reaction from the audience, and from museum staff - expect future collaborations with the museum to arise.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2014
 
Description The archaeology of the secret: Knowledge, power, ancient Egypts 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach Local
Primary Audience Postgraduate students
Results and Impact Garrod Seminar, McDonald Institute for Archaeological Research, Cambridge University

A number of questions from students and colleagues suggested interest in the topic - can't say anything more specific than that.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2012