A mummy story from Liverpool

May 4, 2020

There is no better place to learn about ancient Egypt.”[1] This is the bold claim made by the Liverpool World Museum on account of their 20,000-strong collection of Egyptian artefacts, the largest on display in the UK outside of the British Museum. However, it was not the ancient treasures of the pharaohs that drew me to visit the World Museum – I was there to see the temporary exhibition of the Terracotta Warriors, 5,000 miles from their home in Shaanxi province, China. Having been enthralled by the atmospheric exhibition of the earthenware soldiers, I wandered into the Egyptian galleries later almost as an afterthought. Yet the mummies that I encountered there made this one of the most memorable parts of my visit.

 

Although there are around 20 mummies on display within the World Museum’s Egypt galleries, three commanded my attention. Their names were Ditamunpaseneb, Nesmin, and Nesshutefnut. 

 

 

 

Nest of coffins belonging to Ditamunpaseneb. Author’s own

 

The interpretive text associated with these mummies covered the usual ground: how these ancient people had lived and died was postulated using their remains as evidence. But this display captivated me that little bit longer because, more unusually, it also told the stories of the mummies’ afterlives: the journey that each set of remains had undertaken from Egypt to Liverpool. The focus was on the individual collectors who shape each mummy’s history, earning the display the title of Three Mummies, Three Collectors.

 

The life of Ditamunpaseneb, a priest’s daughter who had lived in Thebes in the Saite period (c.664 - 525BC) was contrasted with that of her British aristocratic collector, Lord John Spencer-Churchill. If, like me, that surname rang a bell for you, there’s a very good reason. Lord John was a distant relation of Diana Windsor (née Spencer), Princess of Wales and British Prime Minister Winston Churchill. The remains of Ditamunpaseneb had been passed down the generations of the Spencer-Churchill family until they were donated to the Liverpool museum in 1881. Today, only Ditamunpaseneb’s nest of coffins is on display because her remains are unaccounted for. It is thought that she was unwrapped by the Liverpool museum’s director in 1903 and that her body was lost following the bombing of the museum in 1941.[2]

 

Next, the story of Nesmin, a priest of fertility god Min who sadly died from a fall in the early Ptolemaic Period (c.332BC),[3] was told alongside that of Lieutenant-Colonel Andrew Haggard, a British soldier who had looted Nesmin’s remains from the mummy pits of Akhmim while serving in Egypt in 1886.[4] Nesmin also has a famous connection: having been transported from Egypt, he was sent to the London home of the Lieutenant-Colonel’s brother Henry Rider Haggard, a prominent Victorian writer of adventure fiction. Nesmin even receives a mention in the author’s diaries.[5] Nesmin’s mummy caused quite a stir during its time in London: after spending just one night with Nesmin in his study, Henry Haggard awoke the next day demanding the mummy’s removal to the Norwich Museum in East Anglia, as his house was “in disarray and grey with mummy dust.”[6] When reflecting on Nesmin’s departure from London in his own writings, Andrew Haggard claimed that a supernatural event had spooked his brother. Apparently Nesmin “was distinctly heard one night by the wife and servants walking about the house of an eminent novelist, a near relation of my own, who has told the world plenty about mummies.”[7] After much of Norwich's Egyptian collection was purchased by Liverpool in 1956, Nesmin's mummy and coffin arrived in Merseyside.[8]

 

Finally, Nesshutefnut, a priest of the god Horus buried at the site of Hissaya when he was only around 15 years old, was introduced alongside John Garstang, the English archaeologist who excavated the remains. Remarkably, Nesshutefnut’s burial was discovered intact. His grave goods, also on display at the World Museum, included a figurine representing the funerary deity Ptah-Sokar-Osiris, a painted canopic chest containing the deceased’s internal organs, and a wooden stela, on which Nesshutefnut was depicted worshipping the gods.[9] Praise is lavished on Garstang for the excavation of Nesshutefnut’s remains: his work is described on the introductory panel as “a heroic effort”. This is because the cemetery in which Nesshutefnut was interred had been looted prior to Garstang’s arrival.

 

 

 

 

Introductory panel to the Three Mummies, Three Collectors display. Author’s own.

 

 

Interpretive text associated with the display of Nesshutefnut’s remains. Author’s own.

 

 

I was somewhat irked by the glorification of Garstang. While it is true that the more scientific process of archaeological excavation enhances knowledge of antiquity to a far greater extent than grave-robbing, archaeology remains a destructive process just like looting a tomb. I did not feel that it was accurate to describe mummies that came to museums even from archaeological excavations as having been “rescued”. Many, such as the remains of Nesshutefnut’s companion Ditamunpaseneb, have been disrespected and destroyed through the process of unwrapping while in the care of Victorian museums. Unwrapping is, after all, a desecration of the human body, so even though I come from an archaeological background myself, I felt uncomfortable at the presentation of archaeologists and museums as saviours.

 

A sense of discomfort also emanated from the objectification of human remains in the wall text: “The mummies in this room were once owned by three different men” [emphasis mine]. I left feeling that even though efforts had been made to tell the human stories of the mummies’ collectors, the humanity of the mummies themselves had been forgotten.

 

 

Abbey Ellis is an archaeologist turned museum researcher, currently working on an AHRC-funded PhD at the University of Leicester’s School of Museum Studies and Ashmolean Museum of Art and Archaeology, Oxford. Her research focuses on plaster cast reproductions.

 

 

 

 

 

[1] https://www.liverpoolmuseums.org.uk/whatson/world-museum/exhibition/ancient-egypt#section--the-exhibition

 

[2] https://www.liverpoolmuseums.org.uk/stories/gift-of-coffins-130-years-ago

 

[3] https://www.liverpoolmuseums.org.uk/news/press-releases/mummy-mysteries-revealed

 

[4] Luckhurst, R. 2014. The Mummy's Curse : The True History of a Dark Fantasy. Oxford University Press. pp.186.

 

[5] Haggard, R. 1914-25. The Private Diaries of Sir Rider Haggard, ed. D. S. Higgins. Cassell. pp.102.

 

[6] Pocock, T. 1993. Rider Haggard and the Lost Empire. Weidenfeld and Nicolson. pp.69–70

 

[7] Haggard, A. 1895. Under Crescent and Star. Blackwood. pp.339.

 

[8] https://www.liverpoolmuseums.org.uk/artifact/human-remains-mummy-of-nesmin

 

[9] https://www.liverpoolmuseums.org.uk/artifact/human-remains-mummy-of-nesshutefnut

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