Guest blog: The Case of Irtyersenu, Lady of the House

Irtyersenu, the mummy of a c. 600 BC Egyptian woman, has long been a subject of interest in the academic community, from her original unwrapping through to her presence in the British Museum today, as more recent studies have sought to uncover the truth about her death. Despite her fame, it is possible that her name is not familiar. This is because, despite her name (or title, as Irtyersenu means “lady of the house”) being inscribed on her coffin, she is better known as ‘Dr Granville’s Mummy’. In order to understand the case of Irtyersenu, it is necessary to look back into her past.


The label attached to the human remains. British Museum.

Irtyersenu was first brought to the attention of the Western Academic world after Augustus Bozzi Granville (1783-1872), a physician and obstetrician, unwrapped and dissected her remains in 1821, presenting the results to the Royal Society in 1825. A patient of his, Sir Archibald Edmonston had bought Irtyersenu’s coffin and its contents in Gurna, a village across the Nile from Luxor, where Irtyersenu believed to have been buried.

Granville, like many of his contemporaries, found the idea of studying an Egyptian mummy too tempting to resist, and after convincing his patient to give him the mummy for research, he invited several friends and scientists to his home to undertake in the unwrapping and dissection of Irtyersenu’s remains. He also commissioned an artist, Henry Perry, to document the entire weeks-long process, and Perry did so, drawing her coffin and its inscriptions, her head, her bones, and her every preserved organ as Granville removed and studied them. It was during this dissection that Granville discovered a tumor in Irtyersenu’s ovaries. Granville concluded that this was the cause of Irtyersenu’s death, and it wasn’t until 2009, when a new study that began in 1990 of Irtyersenu and Granville’s original work discovered that, while she did indeed have cancer, it was Tuberculosis that killed her.

Granville’s dissection was thorough, but horrifically dehumanizing in its study and description Irtyersenu’s remains. He measured and analyzed every inch of the woman who had been laid to rest centuries before, comparing her to the current (at the time) theories on race and eugenics that so fascinated academics at the time. The unwrapping and dissection of Irtyersenu is described as a multi-sensory experience, a disconcerting description when applied to a dissection. It is even more disconcerting when the next sentence in the paper is “Granville lifted the breasts to judge their weight and size…”. While Christina Riggs, in her 2016 paper An autopsic art: drawings of ‘Dr Granville’s mummy’ in the Royal Society archies’, does not focus on this, it is enough to make the reader hesitate. Her mistreatment continued after the original dissection as Granville sold the British museum a box containing parts of Irtyersenu, including a cross section of her femur, parts of her intestines, her appendix, as well as other parts of her mummified remains. The box also contained the parts of a ‘North African mummy’ that is not identified, as well as four human foetuses, four arms, and a leg that were used by Granville in his mumification experiments. Apparently, when the British museum put the box on display, Granville was disappointed and complained to the museum, saying that the box and its contents was “not displayed in the manner best adapted for the instruction or the amusement of the public”.

Still, no matter how distressing, it is not only Granville’s original work that should be questioned. It is the modern representations that must considered. When Irtyersenu’s true cause of death was discovered, in the study mentioned earlier ‘Tuberculosis in Dr Granville’s mummy: a molecular re-examination of the earliest known Egyptian mummy to be scientifically examined and given a medical diagnosis, it was reported by National Geographic, the Telegraph, the Guardian, and New Scientist as well as in numerous other places.

“Mystery of 'Dr Granville's Mummy' finally resolved” (UCL News)

“Dr Granville’s mummy killed by TB, not tumour” (the Telegraph)

“Tuberculosis, not cancer, killed Dr Granville’s mummy” (National Geographic)

“Dr Granville’s mummy”. From the original publication, that highlights the brilliance of Granville’s work in the title, through to the news as it is presented the public, we see Irtyersenu being sidelined for Granville. Of the news articles, only the Guardian stands out.

“Fresh autopsy of Egyptian mummy shows cause of death was TB not cancer - A macabre 19th century autopsy of the mummy of a 50-year-old woman named Irtyersenu misdiagnosed her cause of death”

In this title, there is no mention of Granville and his dissection of Irtyersenu is described as macabre, not lauded for its brilliance. We are given her name and her age at death, just in the title. From there, Ian Sample, the writer of the article, continues to express the horror of what Irtyersenu underwent at the hands of Granville and his peers. He does not hesitate to bring attention to the theatrical and voyeuristic nature of Granville’s dissection, as he covers the findings of both Dr Granville and the new study.

The recognition that the mummy being studied was once a living human being is surprisingly rare and mummies around the world, not only Irtyersenu, are often treated with a macabre fascination rather than any real form of respect. Images of Irtyersenu’s remains as depicted in Granville’s original study are now featured in many different articles, although not all of them are what could be called respectful, especially by today’s standards. In October of 2016, the Royal Society published a blog called Spooky science: Halloween-themed papers lurking in our journals. In this article, Irtyersenu is placed along with fossil spiders and a “ghost vortex” and her dissection by Granville is casually described as “A scientific gore-fest”.

Were Irtyersenu’s remain modern, or if she were not Ancient Egyptian, a culture that has been mysticized for centuries, would she have been treated differently? It is important to note that the box that Granville sold to the British Museum, mentioned earlier in the paper, is no longer on display. It is, however, available in their online collections, with images of some of the remains contained within. These images are only of the parts of Irtyersenu and the unidentified ‘North African mummy’, with none of the four arms, the leg, or the foetuses that Granville had experimented on and that were presumably obtained from local sources through his medical work. When taken at face value, the censure and removal of the foetuses from display, both online and in person, makes a good deal of sense as the sight is something that many people find disturbing. However, the issue comes when it is noted that only the Ancient Egyptian remains are displayed online. What was the reason behind this? Is it simply that we, as a society, have become so desensitized to Ancient Egyptian remains that it was considered acceptable over the display of the other remains?

The case of Irtyersenu is one that highlights the issues with the treatment of Egyptian mummies, but it is not unique. There is a tendency, among the academic world and among people in general, to view mummies as objects. We have dehumanized them, whether intentionally or not, from the moment that they were removed from their resting places, from the original dissections to through their treatment as macabre and “mysterious” show pieces.

It is, however, important to recognize the efforts being made to improve. The recent talk hosted by Everyday Orientalism, Your Mummies, Their Ancestors, as well as articles such as the one published by the Museums Association in January of this year calling for major ethical reviews, and the Guardian article on Irtyersenu are only the tip of the ice berg. This is the beginning of a long, hard road, but the work must start somewhere.

Sarah Peel, MA Museum Studies student 2020, University College London.

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