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Egyptian Mummies were Eaten at Unwrapping Parties by Europeans in the Victorian Era

The Unusual Europeans of the Victorian Era had unwrapping parties and ate Mummies

Egyptian Mummies were Eaten at Unwrapping Parties by Europeans in the Victorian Era

Comparing Modern Archaeologists to Victorian Archaeologists

When you take a second to imagine a modern day archaeologist, I bet you picture a team of scientists inside a roped off and grided area?

Painstakingly sweeping away tiny amounts of dirt with small brushes, carefully uncovering the remains of people and artifacts that have been lost to us for millennia.

Saying Victorian Era Archaeologists were Unusual is an Understatement!

Would it surprise you to find out archeology hasn’t always been this way? As a matter of fact for archaeologists in Victorian Era Europe, their profession barely resembled what we think of as a modern archaeologist.

For Victorians, archaeology was all about spectacle and showmanship, two practices which led to one of the most unusual practices of the 19th century – mummy unwrapping parties.

Egyptian Mummies were Eaten at Unwrapping Parties by Europeans in the Victorian Era

Europe has used cannibal medicine for thousands of years!

Despite what we might think, it wasn’t the Victorians who began Europe’s obsession with Egyptian mummies. Some have suggested that the practice goes back to the 12th century, but it would peak in the 16th and 17th century.

The trade in mummies at this point had little to do with scholarly interest and far more to do with the disturbing practice of using dead bodies in medicine.

For most of history, human body parts were an essential part of medicine. Typically skulls and blood were most common components of these ‘treatments’ and while to a modern observer the ‘science’ behind them can seem ludicrous, to the people using them they were perfectly normal.

Doctors in Victorian Europe believed consuming a body part healed that body part

For a headache, ground up skulls would be taken with water or vinegar. Blood, on the other hand, had been seen as a sign of power and vitality for millennia and was deeply rooted in medicine of the time, with bloodletting being a common practice.

As another way of rebalancing their blood or of imbibing another’s vitality, people would often attend executions with a cup and drink the blood of the executed. The last time someone would drink the blood of an executed prisoner was in 1908 in Germany.

While you might think such an obviously pagan practice would’ve brought out the full force of the Catholic Church, as far as the Church was concerned it was a perfectly acceptable form of medicine and they still have practices based on the premise of consumptive power to this day.

Unusual Practice of Eating Mummies as Medicine

Egyptian Mummies were Eaten at Unwrapping Parties by Europeans in the Victorian Era
Get you a bite!

Ancient Egyptian mummies were seen as potent vessels of power. The mummies also contained a substance called bitumen, which was thought to contain healing properties.

Some of our earlier references to this come from Roman naturalist Pliny the Elder, who, as is standard practice for homeopathic medicine, recommended it for just about everything.

Bitumen could be used to treat headaches, epilepsy, and even blood clots according to ancient sources, and mummies appeared to be the easiest source of bitumen since it was thought to have been used in the embalming process. Over time, however, the importance of the bitumen was forgotten and the mummies themselves were seen as the ones with the true healing power.

Europeans believed Bitumen was a Wonder drug.

Bitumen is better known by another name today — asphalt. As we now know, this is highly toxic and even carcinogenic, but to the medieval Europeans it was a wonder drug. Unfortunately for them (or perhaps luckily), Egyptian mummies don’t typically contain bitumen and another form of resin was used in the mummification process instead.

However, the early associations were so strong that once mummies became more and more scarce, thus driving up the price, ‘lesser mummies’, those of slaves or commoners, would have bitumen artificially added to them.

Alexandria was the home of these practices and there are even records of executed criminals being mummified and aged to fulfil the growing the demand, before being shipped off to Europe as genuine ancient Egyptian mummies. Apothecaries of the time were right in bemoaning the quality of these lesser mummies then, just not for the reasons they imagined.

Victorian Mummy Unwrapping Parties

Howard Carter examining the coffin of Tutankhamun. Egyptian Mummies were Eaten at Unwrapping Parties by Europeans in the Victorian Era
Howard Carter examining the coffin of Tutankhamun

Around this time, however, another use for mummies was reaching its fever pitch. The Victorians became obsessed with so called ‘unwrapping parties, which were little more than gruesome spectacles.

They went as you might imagine. The mummified body of an Ancient Egyptian would be brought out to a crowd of onlookers and then slowly unwrapped, revealing a face that had been hidden from the world for millennia.

Many found it oddly beautiful, others delightfully horrifying. Initially, these unwrapping parties were only done in private homes of the elite (sometimes even royalty), but gradually they made their way down through society.

The legacy of Egypt mania, the period which followed Napoleon’s Egyptian campaign and sparked renewed interest in region Europe, is still with us today. Rightly or wrongly, mummies are the main attractions of many museums across Europe, and regardless of which side of the heritage debate you fall under, mummies continue to be a source of both spectacle and wonder for the millions of people who see them each year.

Imagine how many Egyptian mummies would be around if Europeans during the Victorian Era hadn’t eaten them all!

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Egyptian Mummies were Eaten at Unwrapping Parties by Europeans in the Victorian Era