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  • Pierre Spaninks

Afterlife in a Dutch Depot: the Case of the Zwolle Mummy

From an early age, I found archaeology fascinating. In secondary school, an enthusiastic teacher introduced me to Egyptology. I got to know mummies in a matter-of-fact way, from the bog bodies at the Drents Museum in Assen to the pharaohs at the Egyptian Museum in Cairo. I didn’t think much of it; they were simply the remains of deceased people from a distant past.

It had not dawned on me how questionable it might be to conserve, study, and display such remains in museum collections until I retired and started taking Egyptology more seriously. Why did so many online courses and seminars warn me that there would be images of human remains? Partly because of this, I gradually started to doubt whether those mummies were being handled properly.

I couldn’t immediately express the doubts I had, let alone put my finger on what exactly was wrong, until someone on social media suggested I read Angela Stienne’s book, Mummified.[2] Her informative and impressive book managed to put into words how dubiously we tend to deal with human remains, as interested scientists and amateurs. It also touched upon the disturbing legacy of colonialism, race ideology, and eugenics.

Although Stienne’s book mainly addresses the situations in Britain and France, her story also sheds new light on an issue in the Netherlands, more specifically in my hometown of Zwolle. I am referring to the case of the Zwolle mummy. At least 2,500 years old, it is a combination of the remains of not one but two dead people, and was probably purchased in Cairo by Gerard Heinrich van Senden, a pastor from Zwolle, in 1859. As a scientific advisor, he accompanied Princess Marianne (the youngest daughter of Dutch King William I) on a trip to Egypt that allowed her to discreetly give birth to an illegitimate child. In those days, it was not considered dignified for a loyal subject to be paid for services like these. However, in this case, the pastor could shop to his heart’s content, and the princess would pick up the tab.

The least that can be said about the Zwolle mummy is that it is a unique museum piece with a unique story. No wonder that after the pastor’s death, it ended up in a museum collection where it was exhibited for years until the 1970s. The Provinciaal Overijssels Museum in Zwolle then loaned it to the Rijksmuseum van Oudheden in Leiden, after which it eventually landed in the depot of Collectie Overijssel, an institution created from various municipal and provincial archives.

Following a destructive fire in 2017, the Provinciaal Overijssels Museum was able to reopen in 2021 under the name ANNO (with the apprehensive-sounding addition of ‘museum in the making’). It was quickly suggested that the mummy be displayed there once more, possibly after being restored. The local newspaper published a hopeful article about this, nicknaming the mummy ‘Zwummie’, a combination of ‘Zwolle’ and ‘mummie’ in Dutch, which in the vernacular sounds more belittling than beloved.[3] In early 2022, the management announced that it had given up on the idea and that the mummy would remain in the Collectie Overijssel’s depot. When I asked why this was, I never got an answer.

Over the years, Egyptologist Warren Dawson, anatomists Douglas Derry and Alexander Cave, and paleoradiologist Theo Falke, among others, carried out research on the Zwolle mummy and its origins. Archivist Jan ten Hove summarised its main points in the Zwols Historisch Tijdschrift in the late 1980s, which I gladly drew from.[4]

After reading Mummified, I am not only more interested in this matter, but I also find it increasingly more important. What drove the nineteenth-century pastor who acquired the mummy? Why did his heirs unload it so quickly? Why did the local historical association VORG get stuck with it? Why did the museum director display it as a showpiece, and why did their successor hide it? Why did ANNO first want to dust it off but then decide not to? Was it because of its allegedly bad condition, or were they ashamed of something?

This case has another dimension, which intrigues me just as much. How does quibbling over mummies reflect on Zwolle and its residents, their culture, norms, and values past and present? How does the case of the Zwolle mummy relate to the modern insights of Stienne and others about how museums treat human remains?

Most importantly, how could ANNO still do justice to this story and the unknown ancient Egyptians who have become pawns in this game? These souls probably never imagined that the afterlife they had prayed for, would look like a depot in a small town in the Low Countries.


By Pierre Spaninks[1]

Translation: Natasha Cloutier

[1] Pierre Spaninks (1955) holds an MA in Discourse Studies from the University of Amsterdam (1981). He is a retired freelance research journalist and a self-driven student of Egyptology, living in Zwolle (NL). [2] Angela Stienne, Mummified. The stories behind Egyptian mummies in museums. (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2022) [3] “Het merkwaardige verhaal van Zwummie, de mummie van Zwolle die ligt te wachten op een nieuwe expositie” [“The remarkable story of Zwummie, the Zwolle mummy waiting to be exhibited again”, with some recent pictures of the mummy]. De Stentor, 31-7-2021 [4] Ten Hove, J., “De Zwolse mummie.” Zwols Historisch Tijdschrift 4, no 2 (1987)


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