Masters of secrets
The wrapping itself was an elaborate and ritualised process, conducted within a special room floored with sand and topped in papyrus mat and linen. Attendants would shave, wash, and dress in fresh linen: a purification process before they could begin. Priests would perform the physical bandaging and favoured layers in multiples of three and four. These priests were given the name of “masters of secrets” – a reflection of the great respect given to this role. You can find out more about the mummification process here. The wrapping process alone would have taken up to weeks. Old texts reveal a rich vocabulary used by Egyptians to detail these processes and dressings. There were at least three different verbs for the application of textiles to a body: wety for wrap, djem or tjam for covering, and tjestjes meant to fasten with knots. Sah was a word for a wrapped figure wearing a divine head covering, like Tutankhamen in the gold mask Carter prised from his face.
The “spoils” of science
Tombs were looted for their buried treasure, often leaving a trail of destruction to be rediscovered by archaeologists later on. Fortunately for these dedicated researchers, the mummies themselves often remained. As modern science developed, mummies were prized as sources of rich discovery. In 1825, Augustus Bozzi Granville presented research to the Royal Society on “his” mummy. Purchased years prior for a fee of four dollars, “Granville’s mummy”, as it is known, is believed to have been the first modern autopsy of mummified human remains. St Clair describes his scrupulous attention to detail; the recording of 28 pounds of cloth he laboriously unwound from the body. The autopsy took six weeks, during which he took note of her large breasts and wrinkled stomach and the stubble of hair on her shaved skull: too-intimate details that betray his fascination with this incredible resource. His estimations proved wrong, in time: she was not the victim of an ovarian cyst but likely tuberculosis or malaria. But Granville’s treatment of his mummy reveals how the bodies themselves were effectively pillaged for treasure.
St Clair compares history’s archaeologists with the looters that plundered tombs of gold and jewels. As Carter and his team employed ever more violent means to reach the amulets and jewellery clothed in linen against Tutankhamen’s remains, the body itself was left “not in one piece”. St Clair recounts one researcher’s testimony that “The head and neck were separated from the remainder of the body, and the limbs had been detached from the torso… Further investigation showed that the limbs were broken in many places” (cited in St Clair, 54). The linen torn from his body, Tutankhamen was replaced in his tomb sans the sculpted form perfected 3,360 years prior. As St Clair argues,
“Our preoccupation with the bodies and treasures hidden within the linen… fails to capture the value and significance of the linen itself… Wrapping did help to preserve bodies, but this doesn’t seem to have been its primary purpose. The special, mummiform shape of the sah, with its headdress and mask, was associated in Egyptian art with the divine. Humans were sculpted, using linen, into this form in order to be imbued with divinity. As a body was embalmed and enfolded, it was being transfigured into something worthy of veneration” (53).
Linen was valued by Egyptians: they stored flax as currency, they wore its soft cloth against their bodies in the oppressive heat, and they used it to wrap or “sculpt” items and beloved people to be cared for in the afterlife. Linen wasn’t protecting treasure, it was treasure – and it is one that lives on in modern society, scarcely even attracting our notice.
Travelling in Egypt
Egypt is the ultimate bucket list destination for many world travellers. Few experiences can rival standing before the ancient pyramids, and modern Egypt and its culture is equally fascinating. The best way to experience Egypt it on a small group tour. On Odyssey Traveller’s small group tour of Egypt, you are accompanied by a team leader, meet with local guides, and even a specialist Egyptologist. Odyssey tours are specifically designed for seniors with a passion for learning. This article is part of a series on the history of fabric – an interesting and underappreciated source for understanding how people lived. You might like to read about how clothes began in Georgia; or the history and legacy of the Silk Road, where trade routes defined cultures. You can learn about the history of Persian carpets: centuries-old art forms. We also examine the history of women’s fashion in the Victorian era – a period we focus upon in our tour of Queen Victoria’s England.
Kassia St Clair’s excellent 2018 book How Fabric Changed History informs our article here, and we recommend it for further reading on a unique take on world history.
About Odyssey Traveller
Odyssey Traveller is famous for our small groups, and we average eight participants per tour. Our maximum group size is eighteen people, which ensures quality, flexibility and care that is tailored to our clients. We specialise in small group tours for the senior traveller who is seeking adventure or is curious about the world we live in. Typically, our clients begin travelling with us from their mid 50’s onward. But be prepared to meet fellow travellers in their 80s and beyond! Both couples and solo travellers are very welcome on our tours.
Odyssey Traveller is committed to charitable activities that support the environment and cultural development of Australian and New Zealand communities. Accordingly, we are pleased to announce that since 2012, Odyssey has been awarding $10,000 Equity & Merit Cash Scholarships each year. We award scholarships on the basis of academic performance and demonstrated financial need. We award at least one scholarship per year. We’re supported through our educational travel programs, and your participation helps Odyssey achieve its goals.
For more information on Odyssey Traveller and our educational small group tours, visit our website. Alternatively, please call or send an email. We’d love to hear from you!
Carter, Howard, and Mace, Arthur C., The Tomb of Tut-Ankh-Amen: Discovered by the Late Earl of Carnarvon and Howard Carter, vol II (London: Cassell & Co., 1923).
Riggs, Christina, Unwrapping Ancient Egypt (London and New York: Bloomsbury, 2014).
St Clair, Kassia, The Golden Thread: How Fabric Changed History (London: John Murray, 2018).