Review Article

Mummies, coffins and a forgotten pharaoh

Joann Fletcher
Department of Archaeology
University of York
King's Manor
York YO1 7EP

Books Reviewed
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HERBERT E. WINLOCK. Tutankhamun's funeral. 80 pages, 102 b&w & colour illustrations. 2010. New York: Metropolitan Museum of Art; 978-0-300-16735-1 paperback £10.99.

LORELEI H. CORCORAN & MARIE SVOBODA. Herakleides: a portrait mummy from Roman Egypt. 112 pages, 54 colour & b&w illustrations, tables. 2010. Los Angeles (CA): The J. Paul Getty Museum; 978-1-60606-036-0 paperback $25.

JOHN H. TAYLOR. Egyptian mummies. 160 pages, 120 colour & b&w illustrations. 2010. London: British Museum Press & Austin (TX): University of Texas Press; 978-0-292-72586-7 paperback $19.95.

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BILL MANLEY & AIDAN DODSON. Life everlasting: National Museums Scotland collection of Ancient Egyptian coffins. xiv+176 pages, numerous colour & b&w illustrations. 2010. Edinburgh: National Museums Scotland; 978-1-905267-17-0 hardback £30.

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CHARLOTTE BOOTH. Horemheb: the forgotten pharaoh. 160 pages, 100 b&w & colour illustrations. 2009. Stroud: Amberley; 978-1-84868-687-8 paperback £18.99 & $29.95 US.

Fletcher image

In many ways this selection of diverse volumes largely focused on the funereal reflects the public face of Egyptology, most presenting new information based on original research. Designed to satisfy the public appetite for mummies and named individuals, these books highlight what science and scholarship can still reveal in a field where publishers fight for position.

Tutankhamun's funeral

The most impressive of the books under review is a reprint of a work first published by the Metropolitan Museum of New York in 1941, originally entitled Materials Used at the Embalming of King Tūt-'ankh-Amūn, and now more snappily repackaged as Tutankhamun's Funeral. Although slim, it encapsulates much impressive scholarship, from the original text by Herbert Winlock to the introduction and appendix ('Updating Winlock') added by his successors at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, where this new edition accompanied the 2010 exhibition of material relating to the funerary rites of this pharaoh.

Discovered in 1907 in a pit (KV.54) in the Valley of the Kings 15 years before the actual tomb of Tutankhamun (KV.62) was located, a cache of material was unearthed by archaeologists working for the American Theodore Davis. Initially regarded as little more than a collection of old pots containing scraps of linen, papyrus and dried flowers, the find was never fully recorded and, after the contents had been emptied out to entertain a visiting dignitary, they were stored in the dig house where 'Mr. Davis used to demonstrate how strong papyrus could be after over thirty centuries by pulling and tearing apart with his guests bits found in the jars' (p. 23). It was only through the intervention of Davis' artist-turned-archaeologist Harold Jones that the remains of the cache were presented to the Metropolitan Museum in 1909, and there identified by Winlock as the remains from the mummification and funeral of Tutankhamun.

Once contained within 'about a dozen' large whitewashed pots, the contents included mud seal impressions bearing the king's names and the official seal of the necropolis. There were also animal bones and pottery vessels Winlock believed to be the remains of Tutankhamun's funerary banquet, re-interpreted in the new appendix as the remains of sacrificial offerings made during funerary rites. It is also possible that some of the vessels were used in the actual embalming process, together with a collection of lengths of wood, reed and papyrus Winlock describes as 'a curious jumble of rubbishy fragments which defy description, but clearly many of them are probes' (p. 44).

There were also linen headscarves 'most likely' worn by the embalmers during their difficult and messy work, and a variety of linen sheets, strips and rolls of mummy 'bandages' left over from Tutankhamun's mummification, the actual wrappings found around his mummy having been virtually destroyed by the oxidation and carbonisation of the embalming materials within the microclimate of the burial chamber. Found too among the linen in the cache were bags and rolls containing natron salt, chaff and sawdust; Winlock concluded that 'their shapes certainly should give us a hint as to their purposes', although admitting 'it is hard to explain what the purpose of such curious bags could have been' (p. 40). The new appendix suggests all had been 'used as stuffing in the body cavities [...] to fill the body before it was wrapped' (pp. 71–2), but the larger examples may have been used as external supports during the desiccation and wrapping processes, far better able to fit the natural contours of the body than the limestone blocks suggested for the purpose.

The text — in effect the closest thing to an instruction manual for mummification — is packed with detail enhanced by colour photographs and contributions by the appropriate specialists. No longer restricted to its original limited edition of 500, the republished work is an invaluable resource for anyone interested in Tutankhamun, ancient funerals, the mummification process, the politics of early excavation and, perhaps most importantly, the time some discoveries can take to be fully understood. Until that point, as the new introduction succinctly puts it, 'archaeologists must always be respectful of what has yet to be explained' (p. 18).

High-tech Herakleides

In a second work to focus on mummification, albeit in a form practiced some 1400 years after Tutankhamun, a professor of art and a conservator present the findings of their study of the male mummy Herakleides, dated to the second century AD and believed to originate from the Fayum region of northern Egypt.

Like the previous lavishly illustrated work, this similarly slim volume, also published by a US museum (the J. Paul Getty Museum), contains valuable information provided by a variety of specialists. There is scholarly discussion of the distinctive portrait mummies of Roman times and their stylistic dating through their hairstyles, clothing and jewellery, and a most fascinating section examining the symbolism of red shrouds.

The text then discusses the wide range of scientific techniques employed in the study and conservation of Herakleides' mummy, including the Raman spectroscopy and XRF (X-ray fluorescence) spectrometry used in pigment analysis and the isotopic studies, which were able to establish the red pigment was lead-based and obtained from south-western Spain. Similarly, gas chromatography-mass spectrometry (GC/MS) techniques were able to identify the conifer resin, cedar oil and beeswax mixture covering the surface of the mummy. Although it would be worth undertaking further work to identify the conifer species, these preliminary results are a great improvement on the generic term 'resin' so often used with no scientific proof for such an identification, in much the same way 'pitch' or 'bitumen' are described as embalming materials when analysis reveals such blackened material is often oxidised beeswax. Indeed, the presentation of genuine scientific data is a welcome contrast to the pseudo-science still passing for scholarship within some areas of Egyptology.

In the chapter 'Imaging Herakleides', the various imaging techniques used in the study include infrared reflectography revealing an otherwise invisible inscription believed to be the name of Herakleides' mother Thermoutharion, the Greek version of the Egyptian name Renenutet. Another intriguing detail, this time revealed by CT scans, is the presence of a mummified ibis (Threskiornis aethiopicus) placed above Herakleides' hands and 'the first known example of a mummified animal to be included within the wrappings of a human mummy' (p. 71).

Although this study is rightly proud that 'the data were obtained without unwrapping the mummy or compromising it in any way' (p. 13), it may have been useful to mention that any such 'non-destructive' study involves moving the body, inevitably leading to the loss of tiny surface fragments, ironically often of sufficient size to undertake the so-called 'destructive' forms of analysis such as GC/MS. Furthermore, portable scanning equipment can now be taken to the mummy, thus preventing those — fortunately rare — occasions when serious damage is known to have been done to mummies in transit.

There are a few oddities in the introduction, for instance the statement that 'of all the societies of the Mediterranean and the ancient Near East, only the Egyptians practiced artificial mummification' (p. 9), thereby ignoring evidence for artificial mummification found in Libya, Yemen, Jordan and Rome for example. Yet the study succeeds in its desire to 'inspire and provide direction for future studies on the Romano-Egyptian mummies' (p. 95), and is a useful companion to the Winlock volume. They highlight how specific techniques varied between the periods represented and were influenced by shifting religious and political affiliations, social status and differing geographical locations.

Taylor's mummies

Such variations are also touched on in the third tome tackling mummification, John Taylor's Egyptian Mummies, a more general overview of the subject over an almost 5000 year long period, and in some ways a condensed version of the author's Death and the Afterlife in Ancient Egypt published in 2000.

The book begins with an explanation of the religious motivation behind the mummification process before the evolution of this complex process is explored. Noting that its origins can be traced back to the predynastic period, the author also acknowledges that the first tangible evidence 'of special treatment which foreshadowed the mummification processes of later centuries' (p. 29) can be followed back to c. 4500 BC, when bodies from the Egyptian settlements of Badari and Mostagedda were wrapped in linen impregnated with 'resin from coniferous trees' (the specific details of which are currently being scrutinised by a team from the universities of York, Macquarie and Oxford).

Following a swift chronological survey of mummification, the text then discusses the process of evisceration, desiccation, wrapping and anointing. Chapters also cover amulets, coffins, tomb layout and the often neglected subject of animal mummies, concluding that 'through scientific research the mummies have revealed important information about the fauna of the ancient Mediterranean' (p. 139). Had the author incorporated research into the materials used to embalm selected cat, ibis and hawk mummies (published by Buckley, Clark & Evershed in Nature in 2004), this could have been expanded to include the flora of the ancient Mediterranean. It would also have helped counter the belief that such mummification tended to involve little more than dunking the unfortunate creatures, 'possibly while still alive' (p. 135), into vats of hot molten 'resin' or 'pitch', the study mentioned above revealing some animals had been embalmed in similar fashion to human mummies using several types of costly imported resins.

In the final section, there is mention of several 'mummy unrollings' carried out by individual surgeons in London but no reference to the world's first multidisciplinary study of a mummy which was undertaken in Leeds in 1825. Moving forwards 160 years to 1985, the text states that it was then that 'the retrieval of ancient DNA from Egyptian mummies was first announced' (p. 150). It has subsequently emerged that this pioneering research published the DNA of the modern analysts rather than that of an Egyptian mummy. Yet the author approaches the retrieval of DNA from mummies with a healthy degree of caution, following the opinion of many in the scientific community, admitting that the DNA recovered 'has been small in quantity and poorly preserved, indicating that great age, burial conditions and perhaps the mummification processes cause its degradation. Mummies are also vulnerable to contamination with the DNA of people who have come into contact with them, both in antiquity and in modern times. For these reasons progress in this field has been slow, and it remains to be seen how many key questions ancient DNA can answer' (p. 150).

Supported by images taken predominantly from the British Museum collection, this well-written book provides a straightforward introduction to a highly complex and often contradictory subject, enhanced by the author's obvious expertise. Taylor was also responsible for an initial report and classification of the Egyptian coffins in the National Museums of Scotland, which form the subject of the fourth book reviewed.

Scottish coffins

Life everlasting: National Museums Scotland collection of ancient Egyptian coffins is a handsome illustrated catalogue of the 65 coffins and masks in the National Museums' Egyptian collection in Edinburgh. This collection was formed around the collection of lawyer-turned-archaeologist A.H. Rhind whose excavations in the Theban area were followed by those of W.M. Flinders Petrie, both of whom are described in glowing terms here. Rather more grudging mention is made of Petrie's colleague Margaret Murray who produced the first catalogue of the collection's Egyptian items running to some 1000 entries. This was followed by her shorter visitor's guide in 1903, dismissed as a 'cursory account', which was subsequently improved by a 'brilliant' male curator some 9 years later.

With a preliminary note that 'it has not proved possible at this time to include any discussion of the texts to be found on most of the coffins' (p. xii), the catalogue is introduced by a reminder that 'the coffins from ancient Egypt at National Museums Scotland are more than simple art exhibits: they continue to reveal to each new generation, through words and imagery, through painstaking handicraft and emotional investment, the values and beliefs of men and women of that long-lived and influential nation' (p. 9), or at least the very small percentage who were literate or able to afford a coffin.

We are also told that 'each item in the following catalogue begins — we must not forget — with a human life, and the duty of care for their memories has passed into the hands of NMS [National Museums Scotland]' (p. 9). It seems curious that such well-meaning sentiments should appear in a book about coffins rather than in the works dealing with mummies produced by one of the authors, characteristic perhaps of the way in which Egyptologists have traditionally engaged far more fully with objects than people. Indeed, while reading through the catalogue entries, one is left with the abiding wish that Egypt's ancient human remains received half as much care in their interpretation.

There are a few oddities, for example the random use of capital letters (e.g. 'Royal names', p. 95), or the spelling of the 'the Four Sons of Horis' (Horus, p. 115) or 'Ptolomaic' (p. 118) and the suggestion that the late Ptolemaic period covers the '1st century BC or later' (pp. 118, 153). The brevity of some entries also contrasts rather sharply with those in earlier, more fulsome chapters.


The final book in the quintet differs from the previous ones in subject matter, in the style of its text and illustrations, and its general readership target. So it may seem ungracious to review Charlotte Booth's study of the pharaoh Horemheb, the king who bridged the gap between Egypt's 18th and 19th dynasties and who was commander in chief of Tutankhamun's army, alongside the works reviewed above. Nevertheless this review ends with some upbraiding of Horemheb: the forgotten pharaoh for insufficiently incorporating the results of Egyptological research and for misunderstanding the extent and limitations of science-based research.

In the introduction, the author states 'I am able to put together a full biography of Horemheb' (p. 18), but falls back on old-school notions of the Amarna period with its claim that certain theories cannot be proven 'without the body of Akhenaten' (p. 15), which many Egyptologists would argue was in fact discovered in tomb KV.55 in 1907. As for Akhenaten's successor, this individual is presented as 'an effeminate figure' (p. 29) and brother of Tutankhamun, rather than the female ruler listed by Egyptian scribe Manetho and believed by some to be Nefertiti or one of her daughters. In the chapter entitled 'Setting the Scene', which introduces readers to earlier members of the 18th dynasty (Thutmose II, Hatshepsut, Thutmose III), we find such statements as 'A marriage was arranged between his father's widow, his stepmother and aunt Hatshepsut' (p. 20), which might suggest a three-way female partnership to non-Egyptologists. The claim that Hatshepsut then 'went against tradition by shunning her natural role as queen for the more powerful role of king' (p. 20) ignores the previous female kings Nitocris, Sobeknefru and the more recently acknowledged Khentkawes II. The statement that the Colossi of Memnon are 'the only two standing elements left' of Amenhotep III's funerary temple and apparently 'stand alone in an all but empty field' (p. 22) ignores the great stela and column bases which have long been visible, as well as the ongoing conservation and re-erection of several more of the king's huge statues.

The discussion of the human remains associated with the Amarna period appears equally selective, beginning with the body in tomb KV.55 mentioned above. It cites three British studies which suggest the body was that of a young male in his mid-twenties, but ignores the radiographic study carried out by Fawzia Hussein and James Harris which suggested the remains were those of a male aged around 35 and most likely Akhenaten. Concerning the identity of a female mummy from the nearby tomb KV.35, the author dismisses the suggestion she could be Nefertiti, overlooking such opinions as those of the first Director of Egypt's Museum of Mummification Ahmed Saleh in support of such an identification. The author reports the results of DNA testing carried out on this controversial mummy in 2003 (rather than '2005' claimed by the author) which claimed it was male, conceding that when further DNA tests were carried out in 2010 the sex had somehow changed back to female, a fact surely borne out by the presence of female genitalia noted in 1912. Yet the author seems to put great faith in the reliability of DNA testing, suggesting for example that 'the only way' of identifying a mummy claimed by some to be Ramses I 'would be through DNA testing' (p. 144), when radiocarbon dating has already produced a date of c. 800 BC for this particular mummy, skewed by the type of embalming materials to give an even later date.

So, who was Horemheb? In the author's words 'it is likely he was born during the reign of Amenhotep III' (p. 32), 'assuming he was thirty at the start of the reign of Tutankhamun' (p. 32), and that 'he may also have held an administrative role' (p. 44) — having criticised scholars for using words such as 'probable', 'suggest' or 'assume' in their work. Amidst such necessary conjecture, any available archaeological evidence should be employed, which in the case of Horemheb includes the excavation reports for his Memphite tomb (published by Geoffrey Martin in 1989 and by Hans Schneider in 1996) and the first six volumes of The Rock tombs of El Amarna (by N. de Garis Davies, all reprinted in 2004 by the Egypt Exploration Society). Yet these works are neither cited directly nor do they appear in the 'further reading' section, except for a single volume of the Rock tombs series. Given the wall scenes these tombs contain — playing a crucial part in any attempt to understand this most complex of periods, when subtlety and nuance can reveal so much about the political and religious agendas of the time — this is a serious omission. Finally the quality of many of the images, particularly of the line drawings, gives cause for concern, as does the spelling of some scholars' names (Pflüger, Schulman and Panagiotakopulu should be spelt thus). The author concludes with the wish that this book 'hopefully has gone one step towards bringing the Forgotten Pharaoh back to life' (p. 147), but any such resurrection would require rigorous editing and a better understanding of the limits of current scientific analysis.

Such criticism is offered because the incorporation of detailed research results can be successfully and attractively achieved, as most of the books in this selection have demonstrated.