Some facts about mummies

Laurie Eddie

(Investigator 68, 1999 September)

With the recent CAT scan of the two mummies from the SA Museum, and the release of the film The Mummy, mummies are very much in the news at the moment.

The ancient Persian physicians used a black, bituminous substance called mumia, which oozed from a local mountain. The Greeks incorrectly believed it to he the same substance that the Egyptians used for embalming, and, despite the error, the name stuck and the embalmed Egyptian bodies became known as "mummies."

When supplies of the natural substance ran out people started stealing Egyptian mummies from their tombs, to obtain what they believed was mumia, and a huge smuggling trade developed.

In time the origins of the substance was forgotten and people believed that it was the mummified body itself that had the curative powers, and later still the idea became generalized to the point where it was believed that the flesh of any corpse could he used for medicinal purposes.

Unfortunately not all dealers in mummies were reputable. It was quite common for certain dealers to make their own mummies on the side. When contagious diseases swept through Egypt they collected the corpses, mummified them cheaply, and then sold them off at huge profit as being genuine articles. What the end result would have been for people taking medicine made from such mummies is not known.

Do you know why wrapping paper is usually brown?

In the 19th century the wrapping paper business in America had grown into a huge business. Producers of this paper were always on the lookout for supplies of cheap material to add to the paper mix. It was discovered that vast numbers of Egyptian mummies were available at very low cost. The paper manufacturers in America started importing huge numbers of them. They were broken up and simply dropped into the vats where the paper-pulp was being prepared. Because of their colour these mummies produced brown coloured paper.

The practice continued for so long that brown became the accepted colour for wrapping paper, and even when the supply of mummies ran out, the paper continued to he produced in that colour.