Our changing relationship with Irtyru

Painting of mummified body being examined by a group of men. Some are wearing red fez hats. A crowd of women are watching the examination.
“Examination of a mummy”, by Paul Dominique Philippoteaux (1891).

A wrong history

For nearly 200 years, the museum and its staff had been led to believe that the mummified person we know as Irtyru had been looted by French forces during the 1798 invasion of Egypt under Napoleon Bonaparte. More specifically, it was thought that her discovery was down to Dominique Vivant Denon, one of the key scholars of the expedition who acted as Napoleon’s art advisor. It was understood that on a visit to Qurneh, near Thebes, he found the mummified remains of Irtyru in her coffins. After his death in 1825, Denon’s collections of antiquities were auctioned in Paris where John Bowes Wright of Haydon Bridge, Northumberland, purchased Irtyru and her coffins and donated them to the Literary and Philosophical Society of Newcastle. This story of how Irtyru was found became hardened fact. However, we’ve recently uncovered the true story of Irtyru’s discovery and in reality, it’s a lot murkier.

Painting of a white man wearing a white shirt, white neck tie and dark coat.
Monochrome engraving of a man with light hair wearing a white shirt, white neck tie and dark coat.
Figure 1: Dominique Vivant Denon, by Robert Lefevre (1809). Figure 2: Sebastien Louis Saulnier.

A case of mistaken identity?

It appears that while the coffins are clearly listed in the 1822 sales catalogue, the mummified individual we know as Irtyru is not. This means that any association the human remains had with the coffins can no longer be certain — in essence, the mummified person may not have originally belonged with the coffins. While this sounds astounding, the transposition of mummified bodies into different coffins was not uncommon, especially during the 18th and 19th centuries when antiques dealers would plunder remains in high quality coffins. They would be unwrapped and despoiled to obtain the precious amulets and objects and then a different body would be substituted into the coffin before selling it on. The provenance and identity of a mummified person is heavily reliant on evidence from the coffin. This was exactly the case with Irtyru — hieroglyphics on her coffins were translated in 1964 which revealed the name “Irteau” (later to be spelled as Irtyru). However, we can no longer be 100% sure that the mummified woman inside the coffins is indeed Irtyru.

The autopsy of Irtyru

The result of Napoleon’s campaigns in Egypt led to a renewed interest in all things ancient Egyptian — “Egyptomania”. One of the more morbid results of this newfound mania was the obsession with so called “unwrapping parties”, where ancient Egyptian mummified people would be unwrapped and shown off. While they were seen as scientific at the time, they were really little more than gruesome spectacles. These macabre events initially were only done in the private homes of the elite (sometimes even royalty), but gradually they made their way down through society where an unwrapping party could draw a large crowd of onlookers.

X-ray of a human torso showing a staple around the spine.
X-ray of a human skull with a hook attached to the top of the cranium.
X-rays showing the staple in Irtyru’s body and the bolt and ring attachment in her skull.

Mummification and the afterlife

To look into this concept, we first need to understand how and why dead people were mummified in ancient Egypt. Mummification preserved the body and in its most comprehensive form, took seventy days to complete. Viscera (main internal organs) were removed via an incision in the abdomen and were preserved and wrapped separately, sometimes stored in canopic jars and other times replaced within the body cavity. The brain was removed through the nostrils to cause minimal damage to the body.

A painting showing ancient Egyptians performing a mummification ritual
Artist’s impression of mummification of the dead.

Impact of colonialism and Western beliefs

Napoleon’s invasion of Egypt in 1798 led to an explosion of European interest in ancient Egypt. Collecting Egyptian antiquities was seen more as a scientific study — when it came to mummified people, unwrapping the dead prioritised the extraction of knowledge over respect for the remains. This unwrapping was a Western colonial practice that has happened to Irtyru. The ancient Egyptians would have wrapped her to transform her into a sacred being while the unwrapping process merely transformed her into a specimen or curiosity. What happened to Irtyru in 1830 would likely have been seen as an act of sacrilege and defacement to the ancient Egyptians. When we also consider the possibility that unknown remains may have been placed into Irtyru’s coffins by unscrupulous dealers to make more money, it can be clearly seen that respect for the ancient dead and their beliefs were disregarded in order to gain knowledge and prestige from these ancient “curiosities”.

Newspaper article reading “Mummy takes its curse to Paris. An Egyptian mummy, complete with a suspected curse, was on its way yesterday from Tyneside to the Louvre Museum in Paris.”
Local newspaper report on the loan of Irtyru to the Louvre in the mid 1990s. The headline reads “Mummy takes its curse to Paris”.
Colour poster for the film The Mummy starring Boris Karloff.
Poster for the 1932 film “The Mummy”.

The future of Irtyru

Mummified human remains offer important insights into ancient Egyptian funerary beliefs and practices. They also allow visitors to personally connect with individuals from an otherwise distant past. However, it’s essential that we endeavour to display them in a respectful way that gives context to who the person was and how their body was prepared for burial. We can begin to do this by acknowledging the history of Irtyru’s colonial exploitation and making changes in how we display Irtyru and interpret her story. We can even ask the question of whether we should have her on public display at all — this is something that we will be investigating with our visitors and wider museum audience later this year. The display of human remains has already started to be assessed through the creation of our Human Remains policy.

Further reading

Decolonising the Museum

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Tyne & Wear Archives & Museums

Tyne & Wear Archives & Museums

Major regional museum, art gallery and archives service. We manage a collection of nine venues across Tyneside and the Archives for Tyne and Wear.