Beginning in the 12th century, Arab physicians began to prescribe their patients a most unorthodox remedy: the ground remains of mummies procured from Egyptian tombs.
As Islamic Arabs of the day did not regard the ancient Egyptians as ancestors, the practice was widely accepted and so-called mummy powder was in sold in a variety of strengths. Powder procured from the crudely preserved bodies peasant folk buried in sand pits was said to be only good for relieving minor stomach aches, while the meticulously embalmed and bitumen-rich bodies of the Egyptian aristocracy were a highly valued commodity and supposedly capable of healing life-threatening wounds.
Mummy powder proved so profitable that soon after its introduction, Egyptian tombs were ransacked not only for the riches they might contain, but also for bodies that might be processed into the expensive folk medicine. It wasn’t long before the practice of applying mummy powder was incorporated into medieval Europe’s catalog of dubious medical practices. By the 16th century, the product had become so commonplace in both Europe and the Middle East that the once seemingly endless supply of authentic, mummified Egyptian cadavers quite literally dried up.
In order to keep their niche market going, some mummy powder salesmen began to stealthily acquire the bodies of executed criminals and the unburied poor, which they would then hastily dry out and grind into “authentic” doses of the anthropophagic cure-all.
Mummy powder, however, was not the only everyday use of the Egyptian dead that arose before the dawn of modern archaeological preservation. In the 16th and 17th centuries, pulverized mummy was the key ingredient in a popular shade of brown artist’s pigment, and preserved human and animal remains of Egyptian origin were used in the production of this “mummy brown” paint until the early 20th century.
As the first railroads were constructed in North Africa during the 19th century, mummies with a high content of petroleum-based bitumen were also supposedly sometimes substituted for coal in engines of the then-new locomotives. Mark Twain claimed to witnessed the practice firsthand in his 1869 travelogue, The Innocents Abroad, writing, “[The] fuel they use…is composed of mummies three thousand years old, purchased by the ton or by the graveyard for that purpose.”
Whether this statement was merely jest on the part of the American literary icon, well known for his sense of humor, has been the subject of debate ever since it was published. What is known, however, is that the supply of authentic Egyptian corpses by the beginning of the 1800s was so small only that upper crust Europeans could afford to purchase one whole. In the wake of Napoleon’s conquest of Egypt, it became vogue amongst the aristocracy to hold “unwrapping parties,” where carefully preserved corpses would be haphazardly stripped of their bandages, so that revelers could gaze upon the millennia-old face concealed beneath them. Small burial ornaments concealed in the linens would then be dispensed to partygoers as souvenirs, while exposure to air caused the delicate bodies to crumble into dust, never to be seen again.
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