Mummies and the Usefulness of Death

Illustration by Alina Josan.

Illustration by Alina Josan.

The story begins in a kitchen. Two young women in bonnets sit by shelves of crockery and an open window. Warm, yellow light streams in, and we see just a hint of blue sky. Inside, the colors are browns, sepias, and ochres. The first woman’s dress: brown. The shadows on her dress: darker brown. The table by the wall and the copper pots above: light brown, medium brown, and dark brown. If art historians and conservators are right about Interior of a Kitchen, Martin Drölling’s painting from 1815, the artist had help from a surprising source—the grave. Scholars believe he relied heavily on a popular pigment of his time—mummy brown—a concoction made from ground-up Egyptian mummies. From the 16th to the 19th century many painters favored the pigment, and it remained available into the 20th century, even as supplies dwindled. In 1915 a London pigment dealer commented that one mummy would produce enough pigment to last him and his customers 20 years.

Nineteenth-century painters Eugène Delacroix, Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema, and Edward Burne-Jones were just a few of the artists who found the pigment useful for shading, shadows, and, ironically, flesh tones. (On discovering the source of the pigment, Burne-Jones is said to have been horrified and felt compelled to bury his reserves of mummy brown.)

But it wasn’t just artists who were using ground-up bodies. Since the 12th century, Europeans had been eating Egyptian mummies as medicine. In later centuries unmummified corpses were passed off as mummy medicine, and eventually some Europeans no longer cared whether the bodies they were ingesting had been mummified or not. These practices, however strange, are just some of the many ways people have made something useful out of death.

A Gross Misunderstanding

The eating of Egyptian mummies reached its peak in Europe by the 16th century. Mummies could be found on apothecary shelves in the form of bodies broken into pieces or ground into powder. Why did Europeans believe in the medicinal value of the mummy? The answer probably comes down to a string of misunderstandings.

Meet Megan Rosenbloom, director of the Death Salon, a group of thinkers focused on mortality and its role in culture and history.

Today we think of bitumen as asphalt, the black, sticky substance that coats our roads. It’s a naturally occurring hydrocarbon that has been used in construction in the Middle East since ancient times. (The book of Genesis lists it as one of the materials used in the Tower of Babel.) The ancients also used bitumen to protect tree trunks and roots from insects and to treat an array of human ailments. It is viscous when heated but hardens when dried, making it useful for stabilizing broken bones and creating poultices for rashes. In his 1st-century text Natural History, Roman naturalist Pliny the Elder recommends ingesting bitumen with wine to cure chronic coughs and dysentery or to combine it with vinegar to dissolve and remove clotted blood. Other uses included the treatment of cataracts, toothaches, and skin diseases.

Natural bitumen was abundant in the ancient Middle East, where it formed in geological basins from the remains of tiny plants and animals. It had a variety of consistencies, from semiliquid (known today as pissasphalt) to semisolid (bitumen). In his 1st-century pharmacopoeia, Materia Medica, the Greek physician Dioscorides wrote that bitumen from the Dead Sea was the best for medicine. Later scientists would learn that bitumen also has antimicrobial and biocidal properties and that the bitumen from the Dead Sea contains sulfur, also a biocidal agent.

While different cultures had their own names for bitumen—it was esir in Sumeria and sayali in Iraq—the 10th-century Persian physician Rhazes made the earliest known use of the word mumia for the substance, after mum, which means wax, referring to its stickiness. By the 11th century the Persian physician Avicenna used the word mumia to refer specifically to medicinal bitumen. We now call the embalmed ancient Egyptian dead “mummies” because when Europeans first saw the black stuff coating these ancient remains, they assumed it to be this valuable bitumen, or mumia. The word mumia became double in meaning, referring both to the bitumen that flowed from nature and to the dark substance found on these ancient Egyptians (which may or may not have actually been bitumen).

As supplies of bitumen became increasingly scarce, perhaps partially because of its wonder-drug reputation, these embalmed cadavers presented a potential new source. So what if it had to be scraped from the surface of ancient bodies?

The meaning of mumia shifted in a big way in the 12th century when Gerard of Cremona, a translator of Arabic-language manuscripts, defined the word as “the substance found in the land where bodies are buried with aloes by which the liquid of the dead, mixed with the aloes, is transformed and is similar to marine pitch.” After this point the meaning of mumia expanded to include not just asphalt and other hardened, resinous material from an embalmed body but the flesh of that embalmed body as well.