A Real Mummy Unwrapping

Margaret Murray Unwrapping the Mummy of Prince Khnumu Nekht published by The Daily Mirror 8th May 1908. Accessed via findmypast.com

On Wednesday 6th May 1908, Margaret Murray performed a public unwrapping of the 4400-year-old mummy of Prince Khnumu Nekht. There were hundreds of spectators packed into the Chemical Theatre of Manchester University. All hoping to see what mysterious treasures were hidden within the many layers of cloth. Dr Murray’s primary purpose for the unwrapping was to discover if the Ancient Egyptians had known and used the same embalming techniques as shown in later mummies. The Prince’s mummy dated from the Twelfth Dynasty (1991-1783 BCE), four to six hundred years before Tutankhamun’s time.

Whilst Margaret Murray was a scholar and Egyptologist, the public unwrapping of mummies leaned more towards spectacle than scientific study. The 19th and early 20th centuries saw an increased interest in all things Egyptian and many mummies and other artefacts were brought back by those wealthy enough to travel to faraway places, some undertaking the grand tour. Many of these artefacts were kept in private collections.

Khnumu Nakht, named after the ram headed god khnum, shared a tomb with his half brother, Nakht-Ankh and it is thought that the rushed mummification of his body indicates that his death was sudden. During the unwrapping, his body was turned so many times that it deteriorated and by the time his body was revealed, Dr Murray and her assistants were covered in a thick layer of mummy dust. John Cameron, Professor Emeritus of Anatomy at Dalhousie University, wrote many years later:

Our minds became filled with odd imaginings regarding the cause of the
death of Khnumu Nekht. Had he died of some deadly infective
disease, such as bubonic plague for example? Would the well
known “Pharaoh’s curse” descend upon us?

Study of Egyptology Viewed in Retrospect by John Cameron

Ultimately, the remains, except for the skull, crumbled to dust, showing that embalming practices had not progressed to the sophisticated techniques known to be in use at least a century later which would preserve mummies well enough to reconstruct their facial features and allow all kinds of scientific discoveries to be made in the 20th and 21st centuries.

The Pharoah’s Curse became part of popular culture, appearing in many stories of the era and films. The supposedly ‘mysterious death’ of Lord Carnarvon after he funded Howard Carter’s excavation of the tomb of Tutankhamun, helped fuel the belief that anyone who opened a tomb and removed anything from it would suffer a strange and sudden misfortune or death because of it.

I’ve found many instances of the mummy’s curse in action in the newspaper archives dating back to the 1800s. The mummy of a Princess kept in the Egyptian room of the British Museum seems to have had a particular reputation for vengeance. Her face was said to bear an evil expression. Another mummy, which was eventually gifted to the British Museum, was supposedly responsible for the death of Walter Ingram, who was trampled by an elephant whilst on a shooting trip. Serves him right, I say, but his untimely death bore uncanny echoes of the curse written on the papyrus that was attached to the mummy he purchased and shipped home to England. And let us not forget the sarcophagus that was being transported on the ill-fated Titanic.

Dr Margaret Murray lived to see her 100th birthday in 1963, she was also a scholar of witchcraft, make of that what you will.

You can read my short story The Unwrapping Party here


2 thoughts on “A Real Mummy Unwrapping

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