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Liber Linteus, or 101 Uses for an Egyptian Mummy

June 18, 2009

The Zagreb Mummy, which has accidentally thrown light on a poorly-known culture. Photo by Wikimedia user SpeedyGonsales, used under a CC Attribution Unported License.

The Zagreb Mummy, which has accidentally thrown light on a poorly-known culture. Photo by Wikimedia user SpeedyGonsales, used under a CC Attribution 3.0 Unported License.

“And so parted, I having there seen a mummy in a merchant’s warehouse there, all the middle of the man or woman’s body, black and hard. I never saw any before, and, therefore, it pleased me much, though an ill sight; and he did give me a little bit, and a bone of an arme.”

The Diary of Samuel Pepys, entry for May 12, 1668

Royal burials like Tutankhamen get all the attention, but Egypt is positively lousy with mummies. That kind of burial was restricted to the noble or wealthy at first, but for about 2000 years starting in 1500 BC even average Egyptians were embalmed and wrapped after death. The best estimate is that seventy million human mummies were made, as well as a vast number of animals—over a million of those have been discovered, let alone made.

As common as they are they could support being a tradeable commodity, though the obvious question to the modern mind is “Who, apart from a museum, would want to buy a mummy?” The answer is quite a few people, over the last few hundred years.

Start with bitumen—also called coal tar or natural asphalt depending on where you live. Muhammad ibn Zakariya ar-Razi was a medieval Persian who introduced a number of chemicals and substances to the medical pharmacopeia, and bitumen was one of them. From there the rest of Arab medicine picked it up, and eventually so did Western science in the mass translation of Arabic and Greek texts that drove late medieval Europe’s intellectual growth. Unfortunately, there was a misunderstanding. Due to age and dessication, mummies have black skin, and it was widely believed (incorrectly) that bitumen was used to make them. The Persian word for bitumen, múm, became mummia in Latin and then that got transferred to mummies—it’s the origin of the term. The mummies themselves then came to be the medicine, not the petroleum product.

So from the Middle Ages to the eighteenth century, people swallowed mummy powder for health reasons. This was sufficiently well known to be mentioned by Shakespeare, mummia dyeing the lost handkerchief of Desdemona in Othello. The quote at the head of this article follows Samuel Pepys and his friends going to a dockside warehouse after a night of drinking to see an imported mummy before it was ground to pieces.

Eventually belief in the medicinal qualities of mummies faded away, though they were still imported in some quantity to Europe afterwards. Now they were used to make a brown oil paint, though the origin of the pigment was apparently poorly known among artists. In his autobiography Rudyard Kipling mentions that, when he was a child living with his uncle (and painter) Edward Burne-Jones, Burne-Jones came downstairs aghast one day with his tube of Mummy Brown. Everyone accordingly trooped into the yard and, “according the rites of Mizraim and Memphis, I hope”, buried it. The last batch of Mummy Brown containing actual mummy was made as late as 1964, when the British paint maker C. Roberson & Co. used up the last of the corpses available to them. Nowadays you have to settle for faux-mummy, as the pigment is made with hematite instead.

The most famous re-use of Egypt’s dearly departed came in the 19th century, when the country’s first railway was built. Without trees for wood or native coal, fuelling the locomotives was difficult…and mummies are flammable. The image of the dead stacked up like cordwood, waiting for their final disposition to change from “buried” to “cremated” is a strong one, strong enough that Ray Bradbury wrote a poem about it, “The Nefertiti-Tut Express”. Unfortunately (or maybe fortunately), the story’s beginnings are fictional too. Mark Twain’s first big success was The Innocents Abroad, and in it he presents the first known claim that mummies were used for train fuel. It’s also quite clear from the way he tells it that he’s got tongue firmly in cheek, but the idea was both simultaneously appealing and appalling enough that it transformed into urban legend. Chalk up another in a long line of literary successes for Mark Twain.

The ultimate bit of mummy recycling runs the opposite way. Even more than its preservation, a mummy’s signature is its bandage wrapping. As mentioned earlier, mummification became progressively more available to Egypt’s lower classes over time. Accordingly the cost of linen rose considerably, and there was a roaring trade in cloth going to Egypt in Roman times. Nesi-hensu, the wife of a Theban tailor, ended up wrapped in bandages whose recycled fabric had been imported from Tuscany. After that she lay in her sarcophagus for the best part of two millennia. She and it were then disinterred in the 19th century and shipped to Alexandria where she was bought by an Austro-Hungarian tourist by the name of Mihajlo Barić.

Barić was apparently only interested in her for curiosity value, and is said to have kept the body propped up in the corner of his study. He’d show it to visitors and claim it was the embalmed corpse of King Stephen of Hungary, which is roughly equivalent to a Minnesotan claiming to own George Washington’s false teeth. He apparently never noticed that Nesi-hensu’s bandages had writing on them, as they had been wrapped with the text facing inwards. After he died his brother gave the inherited and unwanted corpse (Nesi-hensu’s, not Mihaljo’s) to what is now the Archaeological Museum of Zagreb in Croatia—she’s a major exhibit and symbol there, even to the point of being on their home page. This is because it was there that the visiting director of the school of Egyptology in Cairo, Heinrich Brugsch, took the first notice of the writing, though he naturally assumed they were hieroglyphs (which isn’t too surprising: late Egyptian writing much more closely resembles cursive script than the classical “picture language” of earlier hieroglyphs).

The peculiar nature of the writing was realized by Brugsch and explorer Richard Burton several years later; Burton arranged to get a copy of it and together they came to the conclusion that the letters were the Greek alphabet (correct) and a translation of the Egyptian Book of the Dead (incorrect). Eventually another Egyptologist, Jakob Krall, got the bandages on temporary loan to the University of Vienna so he could study them. The castoff linen used to make Nesi-hensu’s bandages turned out to have been a liturgical calendar including instructions on the rituals to the various gods whose festivals it tracked. What was most exciting of all was that the language was Etruscan, written in a variation of the Greek alphabet developed for it. Even today, Etruscan is only partially understood, as it appears to be part of an isolated language family called Tyrsenian which is probably unrelated to the Indo-European languages that dominate Europe. What little we know about it comes from its being spoken near Ancient Rome (it became extinct as Latin expanded), from inscriptions on tombs and various objects, and a very few actual documents in the language.

Nesi-hensu’s bandages were dubbed the Liber Linteus, literally just “linen book” in Latin, as it’s the only one of the type known to have survived from the Ancient period. They are by far the longest existing text in Etruscan, and so one of the major clues to eventually understanding it.

6 Comments leave one →
  1. June 20, 2009 5:23 PM

    What really gets me, in light of this and other examples of the late medieval-early modern world digging up remnants of antiquity, is the sheer extent of the contempt for history that seemed to be in display. Is it just me, or was it not until recently that people started to think of history as something worthwhile, rather than something just to be pillaged?

  2. gor llewin permalink
    February 17, 2012 9:59 AM

    and i am puzzled why people are not asking just why an etruscan text should have been used for an EGYPTIAN funeral. obviously there were connections between the two cultures, so far unexplored. the suggestion that the liber linteus happened to be just to hand for the proceedings is rather hard to accept…


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