by S. J. Wolfe and Robert Singerman
Everyone knows how mummies are made, right? At some point in school – in California, it is usually in fifth or sixth grade – kids are taught about the Ancient Egyptians, with a focus on how pyramids were built, what was discovered in King Tutankhamen's tomb, and how mummies were preserved by those clever Egyptians. When I was in sixth grade, we mummified a chicken to experience the techniques first hand; now, in my internship at the Rosicrucian Egyptian Museum I teach groups of children on field trips about the mummification process every week. My point is simply that when one learns about Egyptian mummies, the attention is completely focused on how they were made back in Ye Olden Days.
But whatever happened to those mummies thousands of years later? Some were ground up into medicine in the Middle Ages; others were burned for fuel to power railroads as Egypt mechanized. Still others – specifically, the men and women featured in this book – made a perilous journey across the Atlantic to a distant land they never would have dreamed of while still alive. S. J. Wolfe and Robert Singerman reconstruct the afterlives of the Egyptian dead who came to America, in the 19th century at the height of Egyptomania. From the travels of the first mummy to arrive in 1823 to great fanfare to the freak show mummies that were carelessly passed from one owner to the next, this is a fascinating peek into America as the citizens of a newly-minted, youthful nation encountered the last remaining denizens of one of the oldest and longest-lasting civilizations known to them.
The wealth of documentation really highlights just how much excitement each mummy stirred in the towns they visited. First-person accounts from newspapers, letters, and diaries record wonder and horror. Poetry inspired by the mummies reveal the intensely romanticized vision of Egypt conjured in the imaginations of the American public – images of which still flourish today. It's also interesting to read the reflections on death and an American's place in history that were inspired by the bedraggled corpses as they traversed the country.
There was also tragedy in the many ways that these mummies were eventually destroyed – for not all survive to the present day. In some cases, chance played a role in their destruction – for example, the fires that followed the 1906 San Francisco earthquake destroyed many of the Egyptian mummies in that city. But unfortunately, man often had a more direct role in their desecration. Professors held 'unwrapping' parties and lectures during which the mummy bundle was unwrapped and the fragile bones exposed; a few zealous men desperate to get through the resins ended up hacking limbs clean off the body. The brutal conditions of traveling shows literally shook other mummies to pieces. Even the mummy linen that had protected the bodies for thousands of years became a liability, as a shortage of rags for the manufacture of paper led entrepreneurs to to seek out the wrappings of the dead.
The pursuit of knowledge versus respect for the cultural practices of others still rages on in museums around the world, and the controversy stirred by mummies in the nineteenth century remains an excellent case study for studying the two attitudes. The arguments for both sides haven't changed all that much in the intervening years, and the way they are presented reveals as much about the society presenting them as the civilization they're attempting to learn about. The book can be dry at times, because the authors don't try to dramatize or editorialize events but rather report them in a very straightforward, journalistic manner. But this often-overlooked aspect of Egyptian and American culture is simply fascinating for those who loved mummies as a kid and want to learn more about the modern fate of those Egyptian artifacts.
5 out of 5 stars
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