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  • Angela Stienne

A lost mummy in Rueil-Malmaison

In 2010, an ancient Egyptian mummified child was discovered in a waste collection bin, in the city of Rueil-Malmaison, a western suburb of Paris. The first display of the body in the city's local history museum (Musée d’histoire locale) on 21 May 2016, for the French Nuit des Musées, was an opportunity to explore this rather curious story. Who was this child and how did they end up displaced to France, only to have such a sordid fate?

In June 2010, an individual – whose identity remains unknown – deposited an object to the city's waste collection: a small wooden coffin. By a fortuitous coincidence, the coffin was collected by an agent who had previously worked in a cemetery, and recognized the shape of the coffin, which contained... a small Egyptian mummified body. The man brought the coffin and the mummy to a civil building and they were both taken for inspection to the Musée du Louvre in Paris.

Following a fundraising campaign by the city of Rueil-Malmaison, the body, in poor condition, was restored. The restoration took place at the Centre de Recherche et de Restauration des Musée de France (C2RMF). The mummified body, rewrapped and restored, as well as the coffin, can be seen on display in a new room of the museum.

The room, located on the upper floor of the museum – the former location of the Town Hall, where offices are still held to celebrate events such as weddings – is small but very well documented. The room contains lengthy descriptions of the mummification process, the history of the uses of mummies throughout history (including the use of mummies as paint and medicine), and the story of this specific mummy, named Ta-Iset. The mummy was examined by various experts upon its discovery, including the late Christiane Desroches Noblecourt, who attributed it to be the mummy of a young girl aged four or five, dated from the Ptolemaic period.

The room contains a significant number of objects related to the afterlife, in particular a set of shabtis (figures placed in tombs to serve in the afterlife), sculptures of deities and a funerary mask, all on loan from various museums and private collections. These objects are going to change regularly according to loan agreements. At the centre of the room is the mummy of Ta-Iset. The wrappings have been fixed and present a mummy fully wrapped and covered with cartonnage representing Egyptian symbols and deities. The parts covering the face is missing. In another case is displayed the wooden coffin which was handed to the waste disposal site with the mummy. It is made of sycamore wood, and has the shape of a face carved on it. It is unclear if the coffin and mummy belonged together. Although the size fits the mummy, there are many occurrences of mummies and coffins being paired together for the purpose of bringing them back to Europe in the nineteenth century.

The small coffin.

The local history of Egyptian mummies collections is certainly not neutral.

The room next to the mummy's room in the museum has a staggering 1600 tin soldiers representing Napoleon Bonaparte's Grande Armée, and the relation between these two rooms' main focus is not by chance. Rueil-Malmaison was indeed the home of men who engaged in the Napoleonic invasion of Egypt in 1798-1801.

Various hypothesis have been made regarding the person who took the mummy of Ta-Iset from Egypt and had it displaced to Rueil-Malmaison. Among these hypothesis, Colonel Noël Varin-Bey (1784-1863) has been considered as a potential taker. Varin-Bey was a soldier in Napoleon's army: first a soldier in the Italian campaigns, he was promoted General of the Army of Egypt and became the director of the cavalry school in Cairo. Upon his return, General Varin-Bey lived at n. 37 rue de Marly in Rueil-Malmaison. There is no significant proof that he had this specific mummy, but documents attest that he had a collection of artefacts taken from Egypt, although there is no precise list.

Numerous individuals who went to Egypt with Napleon - including Napoleon himself - took objects as well as bodies from Egypt to bring for personal or institutional collections. Dominique Vivant Denon and Napoleon are notorious examples of individuals who built collections of Egyptian material culture taken from Egypt, and both men had a number of Egyptian mummies. In fact, Denon bought an Egyptian mummy from Josephine de Beauharnais's collection, which she had kept in her château in Rueil-Malmaison. She also had the mummified head of a woman in her collection in Rueil-Malmaison, which is now in the store of the Musée du Louvre in Paris. The city therefore has a long history with both Egyptology and the collecting of human remains.

While the discovery of the small mummy in a waste disposal in Rueil Malmaison is a story of encounter, and a rather surprising and emotional one, as well as a story of curatorial work to preserve and display these human remains, Rueil Malmaison is also historically a site of power where Egyptian mummified bodies were displaced, collected, and displayed by individuals involved in political maneuvers in Egypt and elsewhere.

The local history of Egyptian mummies collections is certainly not neutral.


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