Unearthing Mummies

From the writings of Amelia Ann Blandford Edward

British Egyptologist Amelia Edwards (1831–1892) spent her early years as a poet and romance novelist, best known for her provocative Barbara’s History. As she emerged from the shelter of her family, she became an advocate of the women’s suffrage movement. While exploring Egypt (1873–1874) after being commissioned to write a travelogue, Edwards unexpectedly uncovered a sanctuary at Abu Simbel.* On returning to England she wrote about her exploration and excavations in A Thousand Miles Up the Nile (1877, illustrated by Edwards and G. Pearson). Her passion about the importance of antiquities led her to co-found the Egypt Exploration Fund (in 1882), known today as the Egypt Exploration Society.

The following excerpt is from A Thousand Miles Up the Nile. The passage describes an excavation in the Necropolis of Thebes, when the governor of Luxor invited Edwards and her colleagues to witness the opening of a tomb.

We found the new tomb a few hundred yards in the rear of the Ramesseum. The diggers were in the pit; the Governor and a few Arabs were looking on. The vault was lined with brickwork above, and cut square in the living rock below. We were just in time; for already, through the sand and rubble with which the grave had been filled in, there appeared an outline of something buried. The men, throwing spades and picks aside, now began scraping up the dust with their hands, and a mummy-case came gradually to light. It was shaped to represent a body lying at length with the hands crossed upon the breast. Both hands and face were carved in high relief. The ground-colour of the sarcophagus was whitei; the surface covered with hieroglyphed legends and somewhat coarsely painted figures of the four lesser Gods of the Dead. The face, like the hands, was coloured a brownish yellow and highly varnished. But for a little dimness of the gaudy hues, and a little flaking off of the surface here and there, the thing was as perfect as when it was placed in the ground. A small wooden box roughly put together lay at the feet of the mummy. This was taken out first, and handed to the Governor, who put it aside without opening it. The mummy-case was then raised upright, hoisted to the brink of the pit, and laid upon the ground.

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It gave one a kind of shock to see it first of all lying just as it had been left by the mourners; then hauled out by rude hands, to be searched, unrolled, perhaps broken up as unworthy to occupy a corner in the Boulak collection. Once they are lodged and catalogued in a museum, one comes to look upon these things as ‘specimens,’ and forgets that they once were living beings like ourselves. But this poor mummy looked startlingly human and pathetic lying at the bottom of its grave in the morning sunlight.

After the sarcophagus had been lifted out, a small blue porcelain cup, a ball of the same material, and another little object shaped like a cherry, were found in the débris. The last was hollow, and contained something that rattled when shaken. The mummy, the wooden box, and these porcelain toys, were then removed to a stable close by; and the excavators, having laid bare what looked like the mouth of a bricked-up tunnel in the side of the tomb, fell to work again immediately. A second vault—perhaps a chain of vaults—it was thought would now be discovered.

The Governor was taking his luncheon with the first mummy in the recesses of the stable, which had been a fine tomb once, but reeked now with manure. He sat on a rug, cross-legged, with a bowl of sour milk before him and a tray of most uninviting little cakes. He invited me to a seat on his rug, handed me his own spoon, and did the honours of the stable as pleasantly as if it had been a palace.

I asked him why the excavators, instead of working among these second-class graves, were not set to search for the tombs of the Kings of the XVIIIth Dynasty, supposed to be waiting discovery in a certain valley called the Valley of the West. He shook his head. The way to the Valley of the West, he said, was long and difficult. Men working there must encamp upon the spot; and merely to supply them with water would be no easy matter. He was allowed, in fact, only a sum sufficient for the wages of fifty excavators; and to attack the Valley of the West with less than two hundred would be useless.

Of all Theban ruins, the Ramesseum is the most cheerful. Drenched in sunshine, the warm limestone of which it is built seems to have mellowed and turned golden with time. No walls enclose it. No towering pylons overshadow it. It stands high, and the air circulates freely among those simple and beautiful columns. There are not many Egyptian ruins in which one can talk and be merry; but in the Ramesseum one may thoroughly enjoy the passing hour.

Whether Rameses the Great was ever actually buried in this place is a problem which future discoveries may possibly solve; but that the Ramesseum and the tomb of Osymandias were one and the same building is a point upon which I never entertained a moment’s doubt. Spending day after day among these ruins; sketching now here, now there; going over the ground bit by bit, and comparing every detail, I came at last to wonder how an identity so obvious could ever have been doubted.




* Past Perfect, “In Undiscovered Country,” Archaeology Odyssey, January/February 2001.

i. This was, no doubt, an interment of the period of the XXIIIrd or XXIVth Dynasty, the style of which is thus described by Mariette in Notice des Monuments à Boulak (Paris, 1872), p. 46.



Amelia Ann Blandford Edwards (June 7, 1831 – April 15, 1892) was an English novelist, journalist, lady traveller and Egyptologist.

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  • Sylvia says

    I bought this book some years ago and read it non-stop. It is a wonderful book and I recommend it.
    S Jackson-Mann

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