Europeans’ misguided desires to decorate and digest desecrated mummies
From Brendan Fraser movies to being mishandled as exotic knick-knacks, mummies have not enjoyed the peaceful afterlife that was once promised to them. While precious metals and stones obviously attracted unwanted disturbances, some of the weirder tomb-raiding has been in pursuit of the dead themselves. Once medieval Europeans got a “taste” for these embalmed bodies, there was a strange and persistent demand for mummified flesh outside of Egypt. Whether you were looking to cure a headache or paint an oil painting, for a time your best hope was to purchase some ground mummy.
The supposed curative effects of ingesting mummified corpses is as unsubstantiated as you’d expect. Ancient texts talk about a substance called bitumen, which is basically black goo most of us call tar, and wouldn’t dream of ingesting, since it’s certainly killed more organisms than it has helped. However, it was similar enough to embalming fluids used on mummies that people started thinking that these preserved corpses were a great repository of this elusive elixir. The association was so strong that we now refer to these bodies in a bastardization of the Persian word for bitumen— mum or mumiya.
For hundreds of years, there was a trade in excavated, ground bodies. As interest grew, people started collecting pieces of mummy anatomy as curiosities, saving a hand or finger on the shelf next to other unusual items discovered in one’s travels. People also started prizing unprocessed (but still embalmed) flesh, believing they’d gain some of the mummy’s essence or strength in consuming it. Between these various markets, eventually getting an authentic Egyptian mummy from 2000 years earlier became a bit difficult, and less scrupulous dealers started passing off more recently deceased criminals or slave bodies instead, with few people noticing the difference since the remains would be ground up first (and yes, in some cases animals were substituted as well).
It should be noted that there were detractors to this trade, both on moral and medical grounds. At best, these bodies provided no more health benefits than people ingesting poached rhino horn today, but rationality doesn’t always drive people’s decisions. Eventually, eating mummies started to fall out of favor, and by 1798, when Napoleon’s invasion of Egypt sparked a new interest in mummies, it was more oriented around cultural and archaeological curiosity than desire for a new health tonic. This isn’t to say that the wave of “unwrappings” and private collecting was necessarily more respectful to the dead, but at least there was a hint of educational value when people would gather to examine a body.
Brown from bodies
One of the last corpse-based products to fade from markets was a pigment. Mummy brown paint was again made of ground up bodies, supposedly offering high quality color to oil and watercolor painters. It carried on for a while, and turned up in some famous painters’ palettes, like Eugene Delacroix’s in 1854. Over time, the intrigue of the source of this color wasn’t enough to sustain it’s luster with painters, and more and more criticisms popped up, sometimes about the quality (and impurities from ground bone) and other times about the ick factor of it all.
Eventually, some artists assumed that Mummy Brown was just an evocative name, rather than a description of the pigment’s origin. An anecdote about the painter Lawrence Burne-Jones references the painter’s surprise when learning the name’s origin, prompting him to give his only tube of the paint a proper burial in his yard. Production of the paint slowly died off, with art supply producers finally admitting in 1964(!) that they’d run out of mummies years before. If only they’d left more for the rest of us.
Source: The life and death of Mummy Brown by Philip McCouat, Journal of Art in Society