1823 someone gifted a Egyptian mummy of a Harvard surgeon. The surgeon initially wondered if the mummy was real or one of the fakes he had heard about. But after cutting into the outer fabric, the well-preserved head reassured him. The teeth were perfectly intact and the surgeon was able to determine that the subject’s hair had once been reddish brown. Feeling like an intruder, the surgeon re-wrapped the mummy so it could rest in peace.
If it had been a century earlier, the surgeon might have treated the mummy differently. Dating from the 11th century Until the early 17th century, medical professionals used “mummy medicine” to treat a variety of ailments. They believed chewing mummies was the cure.
Bitumen in mummy remains
Grave robbers in the 12th century Egyptian mummies were unpacked in search of loot in the hope of jewels or other valuables. They noticed a black substance on the bodies, which they assumed was Red Sea bitumen. And that had the potential to be just as lucrative.
European pharmacists were excited to use bitumen derived from mummies. They used it to treat a variety of diseases. They applied it topically to eyes with cataracts or to skin with lesions. Mixed with wine, it is said to be good for coughs and shortness of breath. When mixed with vinegar, it relieved lower back pain. A mixture of mint, myrrh and bitumen was said to relieve quartan fever (a type of malaria). And added as plaster, the mummy medicine helped heal wounds and broken bones.
Bitumen we now call asphalt, is a naturally occurring form of petroleum. It was believed to have healing properties, but it did hard to find and is considered rare. However, the black substance on mummies was not bitumen. The mummies were well over 1,000 years old and the discoloration was likely due to age. The embalming materials as well as the natural seepage of blood and spinal fluid could also have caused the discoloration.
But people thought it was bitumen and business boomed. Around 1400 people developed a trading system to rob graves, extract the so-called bitumen and sell it to European suckers for a steep price. A robber admitted to Egyptian authorities that he removed the bodies from the graves, cooked them and collected the oil that spurted to the surface. He sold the extract to European merchants for 25 gold pieces.
Back then, there were plenty of mummies to keep grave robbers busy. In the Ptolemaic period (from 332 BC) commoners could appear mummification. The more money a person had in life, the better their mummification was in death. However, they did not preserve all mummies to the same standards.
Medicines for mummies
While apothecaries were happy to mix bitumen into recipes, some healers were happy to take theirs mummy drug directly.
In the early 1500s, Italian surgeon Jacopo Berengario da Carpi came from a family that had been healing for generations. They passed down a recipe for medicinal plasters containing pieces of mummy. They were strict about keeping the exact formula a secret, and they also kept several mummified heads on hand so they didn’t run out of their key ingredient.
Eventually, doctors had difficulty securing Egyptian mummies as demand outstripped supply. Some tried to work with corpses dried up in the sands of North Africa. Others turned to mummies of the Guanches of the Canary Islands. Some, like a French doctor, even experimented with the corpses of freshly executed prisoners.
The practice fell out of favor in Europe in the 18th century as medicine turned away from medical cannibalism. an ancient practice This included eating meat, drinking blood, or consuming ground bones to cure various diseases. Although kings and commoners all engaged in medicinal cannibalism, the subject soon became taboo. And European missionaries and colonists used cannibalism to justify occupying foreign lands. The fact that Europeans had ate meat and drank blood for half a millennium was conveniently forgotten.