Ancient Egyptians did not invent mummification. Nor were they the only society to
practice mummification as a funeral ritual. However, they may have been the only society to make it an art form and they were surely the only people to be so prolific in its use. How prolific were they, you may ask. In 1855, Egyptology professor and archaeologist Dr. Isaiah Deck wrote in his journal that mummy burial sites were, “So numerous are they in some localities out of the usual beaten tracks of most travelers, that after the periodical storms whole areas may be seen stripped of sand, and leaving fragments and limbs exposed in such plenty and variety.”
Another indication is given by author Mark Twain. In his book The Innocents Abroad, he noted that, “The fuel use for the locomotive is composed of mummies three thousand years old, purchased by the ton or by the graveyard for that purpose.” There is scant historical evidence to support his claim but the burning of mummies for fuel was a common practice for centuries in remote parts of the Egyptian desert. Twain noted that the mummies probably burned well, as they had been coated in resins and tars.
This wasn’t the only bizarre use of mummies that hint of how prolific the practice of mummification was. Again, historic evidence is lacking and as a result the claim that mummy wrappings were imported into the United States for use in paper mills is considered urban legend. Still, the idea was a subject of discussion as evidenced by a published report in an 1847 issue of Scientific American.
Counted among the more macabre uses of mummies in recent history were Victorian era unwrapping parties. During this period European high society and royalty became obsessed with all things Egyptian, and the term Egyptomania was coined to describe it. Vestiges of this manifestation carried over into the 20th century, and with the marvelous discovery of King Tut’s tomb in the 1920’s, was reignited. Not all mummy unwrapping parties were social gatherings and parties. Many were academic in nature while others had a pseudo scientific purpose, namely to satisfy the curiosity of wealthy amateur Egyptologists. Thomas Pettigrew, a surgeon, was a leading proponent of mummy unwrapping parties, albeit it in a scientific setting, and even autopsies. These morbid presentations proved quite popular and often attracted large crowds. His work did, however, advance knowledge of ancient Egyptian culture, embalming techniques, and society.
Perhaps the most gruesome use of ancient mummies was as medicine. The Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine published a report that use of mummies as drugs and medicine in Europe was a common practice for hundreds of years. By the early Middle Ages, mummies ground into powder was prescribed for an array of ailments from headache to mental illness and even plague. Legend has it that British king Charles II would rub mummy dust on his skin to absorb the “greatness.” As medical science progressed, mummy medicine waned in popularity. Surprisingly, however, drugs made from mummy powder was still sold in European catalogs as late as the first years of the 20th century.
Written by Jim Hinckley of Jim Hinckley’s America