Our changing relationship with Irtyru

By Jo Anderson, Assistant Keeper of Archaeology, Great North Museum: Hancock.

Irtyru — the mummified woman displayed in the Great North Museum: Hancock — is well known to generations of adults and children from Newcastle upon Tyne and beyond. Irtyru has been in the museum now for a very long time. Over that period, there have been many changes in how society views the display of human remains. Our historical relationship with her could be viewed as problematic, and our current relationship is proving to be just as tricky.

The morals and ethics of museums displaying human remains have changed considerably over the years, especially since the beginning of the millennium. When the Great North Museum: Hancock re-opened its doors after its refurbishment in 2009, the Ancient Egypt gallery where Irtyru resides had new displays, labels and graphics. However, only 12 years later we are beginning to question the way in which we display and interpret Irtyru’s mummified remains. As part of a museum-wide initiative to uncover hidden truths and untold stories about our collections, we have taken a fresh look at Irtyru. To understand why we feel so conflicted about her, we must acknowledge some uncomfortable truths about her history. We also have to try to understand ancient Egyptian ideas on death and the afterlife in relation to our westernised modern-day concepts, and how colonial practices have played their part in desecrating what would have been sacred remains.

To begin this journey, we first need to consider the circumstances of exactly how Irtyru came to be in Newcastle. On researching her provenance, an issue has become evident that could directly affect how we display and interpret this particular mummified individual: Irtyru might not be who we think she is.

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.

It transpires that Denon never brought back a complete mummified person from his travels in Egypt. Despite vehemently wishing to procure one, he returned only with some fragmentary remains. Denon “discovered” Irtyru at an antiquities auction in Paris in 1822. The collection being sold off belonged to Sebastien Louis Saulnier, a man most famous for organising the removal of sculpture in Egypt and taking it back to France. Unfortunately, Saulnier never provided any provenance for the mummified person and coffins that Denon purchased. To muddy the waters even further, the description of Irtyru and her coffins in Saulnier’s sale catalogue raises more issues.

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.

Despite this, we still regard this person as Irtyru. Early 19th century sales lists can often be vague. Coffins were often highly prized due to their artistic value and it could be that the seller did not think it was worth listing her alongside the coffins. It is likely that the human remains and coffins belong together, and although we have to remember that there’s no clear proof of this, we will continue to call the mummified woman by the name of Irtyru until any other fresh evidence comes to light that contradicts this.

It’s evident that Irtyru’s “known” history up to 1826 is hazy to say the least. The events that followed her arrival in Newcastle are better documented yet just as troublesome.

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.

It was in March 1830, during the height of the popularity of the unwrapping parties, that Irtyru’s mummified remains were desecrated at a public gathering in Newcastle upon Tyne. In front of a ticketed audience, Irtyru was unwrapped and examined by three Newcastle surgeons — Thomas Michael Greenhow, John Baird and Sir John Fife. Details of the unwrapping are given in the Tyne Mercury on March 16th and the Newcastle Courant on March 20th. They were lengthy reports and noted that it took two hours to unwrap, with bandages weighing 50lbs and 6ozs. After the autopsy, Irtyru’s body was prepared for display. A type of varnish known as shellac was applied as a form of protection — this is partly why Irtyru looks so dark today. As she was to be displayed upright in a “standing” position, Irtyru was subjected to some severe violations — a large bolt and ring were attached through the cranium to enable her to be hung upright. At the same time, a large metal staple was inserted into Irtyru’s spine, which secured her to the baseboards of the coffin beneath.

The damage that was done to Irtyru’s mummified body during this episode is appalling. In 2006, Tyne & Wear Archives &Museums’ Conservation Team conducted extensive examinations on Irtyru to investigate the possibility of rectifying some of the Victorian amendments to her remains. It was determined that the large bolt and ring appliance that had been attached through her skull could be removed with minimal damage. This was carefully extracted from Irtyru. As for the large staple connecting Irtyru to her coffin, it was concluded that unfortunately this could not be removed without causing severe devastation to Irtyru. The debasement of Irtyru’s mummified remains not only violates our modern sensitivities about how human remains are treated, it also has major ramifications when ideas about ancient Egyptian afterlife are considered.

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.

After the removal of the organs, the corpse was covered with natron, a naturally occurring mixture of salt and baking soda, and left to dehydrate. The body was washed, coated with a hot liquid resin, and wrapped in strips of linen. This final procedure was carried out with great solemnity, the wrappers taking many days to entirely envelop the body. Every single action was defined in minute detail and accompanied by the appropriate spell. Amulets of various kinds were often placed inside the folds of the linen to provide greater protection, as well as papyri (paper made from papyrus leaves) with magic spells.

The 1830 autopsy revealed that Irtyru had gone through a type of embalming that was consistently used during the Late Period of Ancient Egypt (664 BC — 332 BC) which was the era when Irtyru lived.

Mummification was a considerably complicated procedure, and it was all done to try to ensure a smooth transition to the afterlife. To reach the afterlife, the body needed to be protected for eternity so that the soul could reside there — the body became an earthly anchor for the soul. So, it was crucial that the mummified corpse resembled the deceased for the soul to recognise and inhabit it. The ancient Egyptians did not believe resurrection to be a one-time occurrence, but rather to transpire every night as the sun god journeyed through the underworld bringing life-giving light to the dead. The body therefore needed to be protected eternally so that the deceased could partake in this cyclical regeneration. While the linen wrappings would have helped to preserve the body, it seems they may have had extra significance to the ancient Egyptians. Wrapping mummified remains honoured the dead and bestowed sacredness upon them. This would transform the person into a semi-divine being, which would also help them to reach the afterlife.

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”.

The impact of colonialism did not stop in the Victorian era. How we see Irtyru and other mummified people on display has been heavily influenced by western beliefs and culture throughout the 20th century and into the new millennium. On seeing mummified remains like Irtyru, our cultural backgrounds can make it difficult to confront the dead human before us. Many of us have grown up hearing legends about the “mummy’s curse” and watching movies portraying supernatural monsters. This distorts our interactions with mummified people as they have been seen in popular culture in ways that can undermine their humanity.

The attitudes towards death in the western world also come into play when displaying mummified remains. A significant number of visitors question whether mummified people on display are real. This is due to an increasing unfamiliarity with dead bodies. Through the 20th century, there was a massive change in western attitudes towards death. Previously, everyone was familiar with death and dead bodies. Death was a discernible experience and the rituals that surrounded it were commonplace. Death was always close at hand and people were de-sensitised by its frequency. However, the increased “medicalisation” of death during the last century has meant a change in outlook. Now, the dead have all but disappeared from the everyday world of the living. Because death is less frequent due to medical advances, many people may well reach adulthood and beyond without seeing a dead body — a mummified person might be the first dead body that they ever see. This can then lead us to deny their very presence, which can make people think that the person they are looking at is a “fake”.

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.

Even small changes can be extremely meaningful: for example, our colleagues at National Museums Scotland do not use the word “mummy” in text and labels. Dr. Margaret Maitland, Principal Curator of the Ancient Mediterranean at National Museums Scotland, has demonstrated to me how the word “mummy” has a colonial past — it’s derived from the Arabic word “mummiya” which means “bitumen”. This is a reference to the 18th and 19th centuries when mummified remains were collected in vast numbers and broken up to provide ingredients for things like medicine and paint. And as we’ve discussed above, the word “mummy” now often evokes the image of a supernatural creature or monster.

Here at the Great North Museum: Hancock, we will be following the example set by Dr. Maitland and National Museums Scotland and will no longer use the word “mummy” to describe mummified people in our collection. By using terms such as “mummified person”, we can begin to change our outlook and see these remains for what they really are — not objects or curiosities, but real humans who were once alive and had very specific beliefs about how their bodies should be treated after death. While we may never know how Irtyru’s mummified remains left Egypt, we can recognise her colonial past and understand how our westernised modern-day views may have affected our interpretation of her story. And then we can start to give Irtyru the respect she deserves.

Further reading

Decolonising the Museum

What is the difference between decolonisation and repatriation?

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store