If you have ever visited the Musée du Louvre, you will have realized that the Pharaonic galleries at the museum (spread over two floors in the aisle Sully) have only one Egyptian mummy on display. It is a rather striking example, with beautiful intricate wrappings. This mummy isn’t just a fantastic example of the craftsmanship behind mummification, it also has a fascinating story, anchored in the history of the department itself. In fact, this mummy has been here since day 1!
Let me take you back to the 1820s...
In 1824, Jean-François Champollion published his Précis du Système Hiéroglyphique in which he explained the system he developed to read the ancient Egyptian script. In this publication, Champollion expressed the need for an Egyptian gallery at the Louvre, hoping
‘That an enlightened protector of archaeological studies may accumulate in a great collection the means to effectively explore this new archaeological mine’
The Egyptian galleries at the Louvre opened on 15 December 1827, on which occasion Champollion wrote the Notice Descriptive des Monumens Egyptiens du Musée Charles X. The first and third room were designated as funerary rooms including: ‘N.1 momie ou corps embaumé” (mummy or embalmed body) which corresponds to a male mummy; ‘N.2 momie de femme’ (female mummy); ‘N.3 momie d’homme’ (male mummy).
N.1 is our mummy! Champollion describes it this way: ‘mummy or embalmed body of an individual named Siophis, wrapped in linen and cotton bandages, artfully arranged, and in such a way that the shape of the body is preserved.’ Although the two other mummies disappear from the accounts rather rapidly (it is possible they decayed), the mummy N.1 remains in guides to the museum, up until today.
What happened to the other mummies? Well, preserving mummies in museums was a really hard job. Before the opening of the galleries at the Louvre in 1827, two mummies had already decayed (and I will return to these in a video next month, so watch out!). In fact, Champollion had noted in 1824 in a letter that:
‘There is indeed a type of mummy prepared either by injection, or with a liquid balm, which only survives a few months in the European climate, much more humid than in the catacombs where these bodies rested for so many centuries.’[i]
Between 1828 and 1830, Champollion went to Egypt for the first and only time to acquire new objects for the museum. He brought back from this trip two child mummies. Champollion died shortly upon his return from Egypt, and there was little change to the mummy collection shortly after. We don’t have engravings of the mummies at the Louvre in the early years of the galleries unfortunately, but we have this great engraving from 1863, published in Paris Illustré: Nouveau Guide de l’Etranger et du Parisien in which you can see the coffins on display in the centre of one of the rooms; however, there is no indication if the mummies were displayed inside those.
The mummy Champollion called Siophis is now known as Padicheri. It is a male mummy from the Ptolemaic period (third/second century BC). You can see it on the ground floor of aisle Sully in room 15 at the Musée du Louvre.
I will share many more stories from the Louvre in upcoming videos on the Mummy Stories YouTube channel.
[i] Jean-François Champollion, ‘Au comte Roger de Cholex, Turin juin 1824