WHAT ARE 'MUMMY PITS'?
Potential 'mummy pit' in the Valley of the Queens
The so-called 'mummy pits' that could be found at sites across Egypt, were reported to contain hundreds and even thousands of mummies, piled up in large heaps in rough–hewn caverns below the desert surface. These 'pits' had been an attraction for travellers for several centuries but became particularly popular during the Victorian era when they were described as 'charnel-houses of horror' and 'plague-pits' of death:
Imagine a cave of considerable magnitude filled with heaps of dead bodies in all directions, and in the most whimsical attitudes; some with extended arms, others holding out a right hand, and apparently in the attitude of addressing you; some prostrate, others with their heels sticking up in the air; at every step you thrust your foot through a body or crush a head.
— Charles L. Irby (1789–1845) &
James Mangles (1786–1867)
Of unknown origin or purpose, these mummy-filled pits were thought to contain an inexhaustible supply of ancient corpses, and they served as a steady source of tourist souvenirs for several centuries.
To date, no in-depth information has been published on these burials. In modern sources, they are usually only briefly mentioned and are for the most-part, presented simply in the context of travellers’ tales. There is a general view that these tales are 'sensationalistic' in nature and that these burials simply represent 'caches' of mummies (perhaps gathered by grave-robbers) or scholars otherwise subscribe to the same view held by many early travellers, that these 'pits' simply represent 'impromptu' burials made to accommodate those who had died as a result of a 'mass death event' such as plague or warfare.
On-going research into this mysterious burial phenomenon, has however revealed that the 'mummy pits' in fact represent a definable burial custom which appears to have been the provision of the 'lower classes' in the latest period of ancient Egyptian history.
Due to the loss of a significant amount of data, the result of pillaging for souvenirs and the removal of mummies for the industrial manufacture of mummy–products, early travelogues are the only sources which preserve important information about the 'mummy pit' burial phenomenon; careful study of these accounts is helping to determine the nature and significance of this long–forgotten burial custom.
Photograph taken of a 'mummy pit' by a British soldier during WWII
WHERE HAVE ALL THE MUMMIES GONE?
Intrepid travellers who ventured into the mummy pits, were rewarded with relics hand-picked from a treasure trove unavailable to the more tentative tourist who remained on the surface. The pits could provide travellers with souvenirs of undoubted authenticity which they could select themselves and they became increasing popular as sources of souvenirs as the 19th century wore on:
The guides, lighting a couple of candles, disappeared through the opening, and called us to follow. Taking off my bonnet, and lying flat on the ground, I was drawn backwards through the aperture, immediately within which the height of the roof permitted me to crawl on my hands and knees, and I found myself in a passage, surrounded by entire mummies, which the Arabs had dragged forward to rifle by the little light that reached them through the pit.
— Mary Postans (1811–1897)
Countless mummies were sold to tourists or ripped apart by mummy-hunters in search of antiquities, to the extent that many of the mummy pits described by early travellers appear to have now disappeared.
As time passed and tombs were pillaged of their contents, Egypt’s burial grounds lay strewn with the rifled remnants of the ancient dead. Very little survived in the way of suitable specimens for souvenirs by the late 1800s, and the mummies that remained in the mummy pits had any valuable articles removed before being abandoned by travellers and relics hunters.
This wanton destruction and abandonment of mummies perhaps explains the impetus behind their mass exploitation for the industrial manufacture of paper, fertilizer and a pigment known as 'mummy brown' in the mid–to late 19th century.
A mummy-trader at Cairo (c. 1870) by Félix Bonfils (1831-1885)
In this period, several reports of the wholesale removal of mummy remains from Egyptian necropolises reached the Western world. Often directly witnessed by passing travellers or resident newspaper correspondents, it soon became clear that mummies were being exported from Egypt for several industrial uses:
'Mummies beat up into powder and mixed with a little oil make for artists in Egypt richer tones of brown than any other substance. Modern perfumers used to prepare the perfumes and spices found inside of the mummies in such a way as to make ladies“dote on it.” Paper manufacturers have used the wrapping of mummies to make coarse paper, and the cloth of rags have been used as clothing.'
— Logansport Journal (1887)
Such uses reflected the common notion throughout the 19th century that the mummies found in the pits were expendable, as their supply was thought to be inexhaustible. Also considered of no scientific value and more widely available than those popular as souvenirs, these mummies were deemed consumable and ideal for use to manufacture such 'mummy-products.'
It was so profitable in fact, that reports of the exploitation of mummies continued well into the early 1900s, with certain mummy products such as mummy paint, only ceasing production because of the difficulty of procuring mummy specimens as material:
We are badly in want of one [a mummy] at a suitable price, but find considerable difficulty in obtaining it. It may appear strange to you, but we require our mummy for making colour.
—The Daily Mail (1904)
Towards the close of the 19th century, indignation was being expressed at the wholesale removal of mummy remains for the industrial manufacture of these mummy-products. With the increased scientific interest in and protection of Egypt’s antique remains, together with the significant loss of material from her tombs, eventually there was a cessation of the removal of her ancient dead both as souvenirs and material for mummy products.
Reports both by travellers and newspapers appear to decrease in the early years of the 20th century and the trade in mummy products appears to have ceased by this time; most likely a result of the changes made to paper and fertilizer manufacture which moved towards the use of wood-pulp and chemical phosphates by the late 19th century.
By this time, an unknown known number of mummy pits had been lost and now, the only detailed information which survives on these unusual burials survives in the accounts of early travellers.