Mummy Dust, 1904
At a gig in Manchester recently, watching my new favourite band, Ghost, singing their song “Mummy Dust”, I started thinking about looking up powdered mummies on the British Newspaper Archive. The Archive starts mid-18th century and I thought vaguely that maybe the use of ground-up mummies as a gruesome kind of medicine had persisted into Victorian times.
Not that “Mummy Dust” is actually about mummies, I think it’s about the evils of money. Here’s Papa Emeritus III singing the song live, and really reminding me of another Papa, the League of Gentlemen’s Papa Lazarou. Is that Reece Shearsmith under the mask?
It turns out the Victorians were almost as fascinated and disbelieving at the existence of mummy medicine as we are, and they describe the bizarre sources of medicine from the sixteenth to the eighteenth centuries with delight. As well they might, as they sound indistinguishable from your classic witches brew, eye of newt, and all that.
In 1868, the imminent Pharmacy Act gave newspapers the chance to review these strange medicines of the past, this was the kind of quackery the Act was intended to guard against. A beautiful line, this – “Ancient Egyptians who could never agree with their wives, were expected, when pulverised and taken in preserves, to agree with the wives of other people. The living, to lengthen their own lives, made medicine of the dead.”
This piece from 1897 describes strange Elizabethan medicines as including “crabs’ eyes, dried spiders, powdered mummy, wolfs’ liver, [and] dried toads.”
And here’s mention of “spider pills” for jaundice – a live spider covered in butter and rolled into a ball, then swallowed. As well as newborn puppies, tiger flesh, and viper broth to improve the eyesight. For careless women, try the herb Solomon’s seal, good for clearing up the bruises caused by “women’s wilfulness in tumbling upon their hasty husbands’ fists.” And of course, the powdered mummy, too popular for its own good – “so great was the demand that more mummies were supplied than ever came out of Egypt.”
The ancient mummies of Egypt were held in high regard, at least in terms of the almost magical effect they might imbue. Not in high enough regard that they weren’t disrespectfully ground to dust to be used by apothecaries and necked, cannibalistically, by the wealthy. Demand was so high that over time new mummies were made, from criminals or other unclaimed bodies, to keep the supply up.
They were also held in high regard as a potent source of manure. Trade in mummified cats for this purpose seemed profitable. This correspondent is shocked that ancient cat dust reached a price of £5 17s 6d per ton. “Only think of it! The dust of Julius Caeser himself would not be worth anything like that money.”
And with all this dust flying around, it was even suggested (although hardly taken seriously) that the scourge of influenza was caused by all these dead Egyptians.
And yet, despite marvelling at the strangeness of mummy medicine, the Victorians were still using powdered mummy themselves in an even odder way than the manure trade. It was almost hidden in plain sight. I came across this little article on paint manufacturers in 1904, and disbelieved it immediately. Surely it couldn’t really be the case that “…almost every manufacturer of pigments has a mummy department”? That mummies were ground up, mixed with poppy oil and sold as “a beautiful brown” paint?
But, strangely, it was true. When I say “hidden in plain sight”, I mean that it wasn’t an obvious secret – in fact, the name of this pigment was actually “Mummy Brown”. A bit of a giveaway, you might think. But, much like you don’t expect a tube of “Burnt Sienna” oil paint to contain fragments of a spontaneously human combusted Sienna Miller, not many people seemed to realise that “Mummy Brown” wasn’t just a descriptor of a burnished, dusty, earthy sepia paint. The London Daily News certainly saw the information as “startling” in 1904, and Mummy Brown had been used for around 400 years and already graced the paintings of many of the Pre-Raphaelites by then.
Mummy Brown was reported a few times in the papers, but generally always as a new, strange titbit of curiosity.
The paint was first made in the 16th century, at the same time that powdered mummy became popular as a medicine. Along with the mummy dust, it originally contained white pitch and myrrh and was a popular pigment for some time as its transparency made it versatile. It was often used for flesh tones. It wasn’t just human mummies that made up Mummy Brown, there were an awful lot of mummified cats in the plundered tombs of Egypt, and they were ground up too.
I found this mention from 1893 – apparently many of those who even knew that the paint was made from mummies had thought that they weren’t of the human variety. “From the mummies of ancient Egypt is manufactured a paint called “mummy brown”, and although it was alleged for some time that the mummies employed for this purpose were those of birds and beasts, an osteologist who interested himself in the subject found in some of the “raw stuff” imported from Egypt, certain bones which were undoubtedly human.”
Apparently over the course of the 19th century the exact nature of the paint became better known to artists, and so it became less used as a result, although evidently the message hadn’t reached everyone. There’s a great story about the time that the Pre-Raphaelite painter Edward Burne-Jones found out just what Mummy Brown was. The artist Lawrence Alma-Tadema had been invited to lunch with the Burne-Jones family, the party including a young Rudyard Kipling, a nephew of Burne-Jones. Talking shop, the two artists were discussing the paints they used. Alma-Tadema told Burne-Jones of an invitation he’d had from a paint-maker to see a mummy before it was ground down for use in his Mummy Brown paint. Burne-Jones couldn’t believe that the paint was really made from the dead – he used that shade and had thought it referred only to the colour. Once convinced it was true, he rushed to his studio, grabbed his tube of Mummy Brown, dug a hole in the ground, buried it and gave it a funeral, there and then.
This story, and pretty much anything else you might want to know about Mummy Brown, can be found in this marvellous post – The Life and Death of Mummy Brown.
The discovery of Tutankhamen’s tomb in 1922 put mummies and Ancient Egypt back in the spotlight and inspired an array of beautiful Art Deco designs. An interesting question is raised in this article about how much time has to pass before disturbing a grave isn’t an act of desecration. And the paper’s readers are told of Mummy Brown – “Until quite recently Egyptian mummies were actually being ground up by artists’ colourmen and used for making paint called “mummy brown.”
I’m not sure when Mummy Brown properly ceased to be, when the ashes to ashes, dust to dust and dust to paint finally ended. But it was still sold until the 1920s or 30s by the colour-makers Roberson’s of London. Incredibly, the firm’s managing director confirmed as late as 1964 that they’d finally used up all their mummies. He said, “We might have a few odd limbs lying around somewhere, but not enough to make any more paint. We sold our last complete mummy some years ago for, I think, £3. Perhaps we shouldn’t have. We certainly can’t get any more.”