- Museum number
Fragments of sycomore fig wood coffin, broadly rectangular, although slightly wider at one end, crudely fastened together with iron nails, the exterior was originally covered with plaster and painted, the lid still bears extensive traces of polychrome decoration, the coffin contains the 'mummy of a child', although this consists of packing which has been wrapped to resemble a young child, the whole is wrapped in linen and has a modelled and coloured cartonnage face, there is also a decorative collar, polychrome with gilded granules, and a painted and gilded panel, representing a falcon-headed deity within a shrine, attached to the body by means of criss-crossed linen bandages. Parallels are of eighteenth century date and have been found to contain a mummified ibis.
- Production date
Length: 41 centimetres (approx. mummy)
Length: 49.40 centimetres (max;coffin)
Width: 15.40 centimetres (max coffin)
Depth: 16.30 centimetres (max coffin with lid)
- Curator's comments
- Jenkins & Sloan 1996
The faking of mummies is known to go back to Pharaonic times in Egypt, and actual examples have been found in tombs of the Roman period. The revival of the practice in the eighteenth century is attributed by contemporary sources to the Jews and Arabs of Cairo and Saqqara. Debris was taken from ancient tombs and combined with modern elements to supply collectors, who were too inexpert to detect a forgery. A number of these forgeries are now in collections throughout Europe, sometimes having been identified with the help of X-rays. For the most part, as here, the outward appearance of the object is alone sufficient to reveal its true nature.
The identification of eighteenth-century forgeries is by no means new, and in 1794 the physician John Frederic Blumenbach FRS published a remarkable account of a number of fake mummies which he detected by opening them and examining their contents. One such examination took place at the home of Charles Greville, Sir William Hamilton's nephew. The mummy itself belonged to a certain John Symmons and, says Blumenbach,
"Having with Mr Symmons' leave taken this mask, together with some other very interesting pieces of his mummy, with me to Gottingen, I there steeped it in warmwater, and carefully separated all the parts of it. By this means I discovered the various fraudulent artifices that had been practised in the construction of this mask: the wooden part was evidently a piece of the front of the sarcophagus of the mummy of a young person, and in order to convert its alto-relievo into basso-relievo of the usual cotton mask of a mummy, plaster had been applied on each side of the nose; after which paper had been ingeniously pasted over the whole face, and lastly, this paper had been stained with the colours generally observed on mummies." Blumenbach reports that there were originally two small mummies in the Hamilton collection at the British Museum, and one in the collection of Sir Hans Sloane. He applied for and was granted permission to open the latter and found its only human part to be a leg bone: 'On sawing it open, a resinous smell was immediately emitted and glutinous particles of resin adhered to the heated saw. This was owing to the cotton bandages having been from without impregnated with resin .... On opening it completely we found in the inside a human os humeri ... the upper end (caput) of the bone was inserted in the head, and the lower extremity was at the feet of the little figure.' The rest of the mummy was made up from fragments of the resin and wrappings of an ancient mummy and 'traces of our common lint paper, with which it seemed to have been restored, and afterwards painted over'.
Soon after their arrival in the British Museum, Sir William's Egyptian objects were separated from the rest of the collection and displayed in a room devoted to Egyptian antiquities. In time, the connection of some of these pieces with Hamilton was lost, and this mummy is one of a number of Egyptian antiquities only recently identified as formerly belonging to Sir William. A second fake mummy also reputed to be from his collection was opened some point in its history, and is now a rather gruesome sight.
LITERATURE: Blumenbach; Germer et al
- Not on display
- fair (exterior of coffin worn)
- Acquisition date
- Egypt and Sudan
- BM/Big number
- Registration number
- Additional IDs
Miscellaneous number: BS.6952 (Birch Slip Number)