The Awful Reason There Aren’t More Mummies

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Did people in Victorian England eat mummies!? Was the flesh from mummies used for paint? In this episode, we talk about medical cannibalism, bad science and mummification. Then we chat with host of the The Opinion Science Podcast, Dr. Andy Luttrell! 

There’s an 1815 painting by Martin Drolling that hangs in the Louvre. It’s an interior painting of two women and a child sitting in the light of an open window. The women are painting and the child is on the tiled floor, playing. The painting, called “Interior of a Kitchen,” is filled with dull earth tones, browns and reds. And one of the notable colors in the painting is called “mummy brown.” It’s a particular shade of brown that was very desirable at the time, and very difficult to come by. Because it wasn’t just the color of mummies. It was made from mummies.

Mummy Brown had a certain transparency and shine to it that was popular for depicting windows and shadows. And it was sold all the way up until 1930. The pigment used ground flesh of actual mummies, mixed with other chemicals, to create a paint that was known to all artists of the time. In addition to mummy brown, it’s even rumored that Drolling used the blood from the hearts of monarchs to create some of the red hues in the painting, but that fact is disputed. 

Today we’re mostly going to talk about mummies and why there aren’t more of them. Now when this topic comes up, there’s usually an exaggerated statement like “there would be way more mummies if people in Victorian England didn’t eat them.” And that’s not really true. There’s no evidence that the total number of mummies would be huge if it weren’t for this particular type of desecration, but yes – people ate mummies. 

As early as 5000 B.C., humans were deliberately mummifying their dead. And while scientists have discovered naturally mummified human remains throughout history, we’re talking specifically about people that were deliberately mummified, which is most commonly associated with Egypt. Mummification was a part of normal life and death in Egypt, for both rich and poor Egyptians. 

And there’s something about the way that people were mummified that was interesting to scientists and doctors in Victorian England. The flesh of the mummies was dark, almost black. Put a pin in that and we’ll come back to it in a minute. 

A little backstory – ancient scholars and medicine men used a substance called bitumen to treat a whole assortment of ailments and to protect plants from insects. It was a dark, sappy, tar like substance that formed in the Middle East from decayed plant and animals. In Persia, it was called Mumia, from the word “mum,” meaning wax. And they referred to this bitumen tar as mumia when they used it for medicinal purposes. Even Pliny the Elder, the famous Roman author and naturalist, mentions using bitumen to treat coughs and dysentery. Scientists later discovered that there is indeed some antimicrobial properties to bitumen, and it contains sulfur, which is a biocidal agent. So it makes sense that when preserved Egyptian remains were discovered and appeared to be covered in this dark waxy substance, they believed it to be bitumen. And because bitumen was known as mumia, that’s where we get the word “mummies.” There’s some dispute as to whether any of the flesh of the mummies actually contained any bitumen. Some of it may have been, but not all of it. Most of the waxy black surface of mummified flesh was just the result of the mummification process and wasn’t bitumen at all.

Well just like any natural resource, naturally occurring bitumen from the ground was becoming more and more rare. And – even if they were mistaken – these mummies provided a possible new-found source. 

It was around this same time, that the actual definition of mumia began to change to include not only naturally occurring decayed material, but that taken from an embalmed body. I think it’s probably easy to see at this point, where this is going.

Along with heroin for cough syrup, tobacco for headaches, and mercury for STDs, people started to believe that eating small bits of ground mummy flesh could be beneficial to their health.

It was a very strange and disconnected form of what’s known as medical cannibalism. There was a time when King Charles II of England sipped what he called the “King’s Drops”. It was his own personal tincture and was made up of ground human skull suspended in alcohol. In the 1600s, a scientist named Thomas Willis believed that if you ground up a human skull and mixed it with chocolate, you could cure apoplexy. In Germany, doctors used human fat, soaked into bandages, to treat wounds.

In Victorian England, consuming blood and tinctures made from ground human bone were up to date with the science and the beliefs of the time. It wasn’t considered some sort of strange medicine. It’s interesting to think about the fact that – at this very same time, Protestants were persecuting Catholics for their belief in transubstantiation and thought it was outrageous that Catholics believed they were drinking the blood and eating the flesh of Jesus. And here at the same time, people were consuming blood, fat, skull and flesh of the dead for their health.

Some of the health benefits that they believed consuming mummy powder would provide was vitality, protection against ilness of the liver and spleen, curing paralysis, and the list goes on. It was like a snake oil of the time.

So where did these mummies come from? Well it turns out the mummy trade was big business. English, Spanish, French and Germans began working in the mummy importing and exporting business. Sometimes they’d buy and sell complete bodies. Sometimes it would just be fragmented pieces of mummified flesh. But as soon as this business arose, that meant that Egyptian tombs were also raided. Some were raided and stolen for display as oddities in museums. But many were raided and ground into powder for medicine and paint.

Mummia Powder used for Medicine

Now there’s this idea that we would have a TON more mummies if the Victorians didn’t eat them. And I’ve seen that argued, but I’ve also seen it argued that it’s not necessarily true. Dr. Sarah Parcak is an Egyptologist and author and she says in a twitter thread:

“Mummies are NOT rare b/c people ate them. A) Mummies are found all the time. See all media of mummies found  B) Mummies were used for paint + as medicine in 19th c *but* there is a huge mythology around them. Countless mummies were lost to unethical mummy wrappings AND were used as fertilizer. How many mummies were used for mummia? We cannot quantify. Only a small percentage of mummies lost compared to other reasons. Also if mummies are so rare how come my colleagues & I keep finding them?”

And then she added a TL;DR: “Mummies are cool but learn about them from experts.”

The practice of using mummies for medicine led to something even more sinister. The selling of fake mummies. People began robbing graves and selling corpses as Egyptian mummies. After all – mummies themself were an extremely limited resource. Eventually, science proved that there was little benefit to the practice, medically speaking.

So it’s partially true. If you’re ever asked by a child why there aren’t mummies anymore, you can look them in the eye and say with a serious face: “It’s because we ate them.”

The Opinion Science podcast episode referenced about immigration and public opinion.

The This American life episode referenced about Hookworms.

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Forgotten history, bizarre tales & facts that seem too strange to be true! Host Michael Kent asks listeners to tell him something strange, bizarre or surprising that they've recently learned and he gets to the bottom of it! Every episode ends by playing a gameshow-style quiz game with a celebrity guest. Part of the WCBE Podcast Experience.


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