What do I do with the Egyptian mummy?

I’ve been going gangbusters writing my book lately. This is why my blog posts have tapered off recently – sorry – but there are some important advantages in staying in the Zone, without any interruptions.

When I have a concentrated spell of writing, rather than fitting it in around other obligations, which is the natural condition of most university teachers (and most women, for that matter), I find that I make connections that I might have missed if I was working my way more slowly from chapter to chapter.

As usual, I’m wrestling with the agony of what to leave out. I’ve always felt that the clearest difference between an antiquarian and a good historian lies in their ability to stick to the wider perspective without getting sidetracked by fascinating trivia.

Biography gives the writer a little more leeway: odd facts can illuminate a personality, and they add colour and movement to a life. But odd facts can be a distraction, a sequence of one-damn-thing-after-another anecdotes, and they have the potential to distort the narrative if it relies entirely on the accident of what documentary evidence remains. Trivial facts need to be odd, as in occasional, not just odd.

So what do I do about the Egyptian mummy? Sadly, I think it belongs in the Kill Your Darlings file – but I would love to be persuaded otherwise.

In 1820, Walter Stevenson Davidson (the subject of my biography, if you are coming late to the party) went home to Britain on leave from his business selling opium in China. He took the ‘overland route’, the fast route favoured by travellers without the patience to sail from India right around the Cape of Good Hope. They took one ship to the Red Sea, then travelled overland, usually to Alexandria, where they took a second ship for the rest of the journey.

The overland route was a well-organized and well-beaten track, and groups of travellers usually went overland in convoy, with plenty of local servants to deal with their voluminous luggage. This route brought a lot of English and Scots into contact with Egypt for the first time – generating a demand for souvenirs on a grand scale.

Picture of an Egyptian Mummy

In A.B.Granville, An Essay on Egyptian Mummies (1825)

Walter Davidson travelled with a friend, Thomas Coats, and in February 1820 they visited Thebes, where they each bought a mummy – as you do.

He purchased a mummy from the excavations near Thebes, at Gournon, in February, 1820, selected out of a dozen which he opened, as the best preserved. It proved to be that of a male. It was quite dry; the hair and teeth were most perfect, the former being very long, in great profusion, and smoothly combed down. The body contained only a large quantity of gum, and there was no flesh, or very little of it, on the bones. Every part was brittle. It was enveloped in cotton bandages to a great extent, and was contained within two cases. [Granville, pp.24-5]

Now, what on earth do I do with this story? It is in no way central to Walter’s life, and would interrupt my account of the events that brought him back to Scotland just then to deal with the aftermath of his father’s death. It would probably give a modern reader the wrong idea anyway: what is he doing wasting time sightseeing in Thebes when he should be hurrying back to look after the family?

Time is a relative concept, of course, but it would take a long exegesis to explain that in 1820, even travellers in a hurry had lots of time on their hands, hanging around waiting for porters or resting their animals – camels? mules? Both human and animal beasts of burden were important, because these travellers did not travel light. I understand why they couldn’t fit everything into a 20kg. suitcase, but how on earth do you get a couple of mummies home?

Thomas Coats later married Walter’s sister – I’ve mentioned this here – and gave his mummy to the Literary Society of his home town of Newcastle-on-Tyne. I’ve no idea what happened to Walter’s mummy. It is hard to imagine it gracing his living room, but who knows?

I’d love to include the story of Walter’s Egyptian mummy in my book, but I’ve no idea where to slot it in. It has no wider significance – unless I can, perhaps, use it to illustrate the commodification of human beings that was part of the 19th century imperial project. That’s a bit tortuous really – but it is a great story.

Note: Thanks to Simon Peers for first alerting me to the story of WSD’s mummy.
A.B. Granville, An Essay on Egyptian Mummies; with Observations on the Art of Embalming among the Ancient Egyptians (London, 1825), is available on Google Books here.
Granville is another of my Dead Darlings – I’ve written about him here.

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9 responses to “What do I do with the Egyptian mummy?

  1. where did the mummy end up I wonder?

  2. No idea. But I think a surprising number reached europe in this period.

  3. Here is Thomas Coates’ mummy:
    “Bakt-en-Hor was the first mummy to come to Newcastle, brought back by a gentleman traveller, Thomas Coates of Lipwood House, Haydon Bridge in 1821 from Gurna, the elite cemetery on the west bank of the ancient capital of Thebes (the modern city of Luxor). Thomas Coates was a surgeon working in India who travelled home overland. He reportedly saw the mummy being disinterred in Gurna and bought it on site. Coates presented the mummy to the Literary and Philosophical Society. When the Hancock Museum opened in 1884, the Natural History Society purchased the collections of the ‘Newcastle Museum’ at the Lit & Phil.
    The inscription on the cartonnage was first translated by Jean- François Champollion by correspondence in 1823 and published in the Newcastle Magazine (1824, vol 3, p. 92). A more recent translation by John Taylor, assistant keeper of ancient Egypt & Sudan at the British Museum reads: ‘An offering which the king gives to Re-Harakhty, chief of the gods [to] Atum, lord of the two lands, [and to] Osiris, Foremost of the Westerners, so that he may give offerings and provisions to the Osiris, the Lady of the House, Baket-en-her, daughter of the God’s father Nakhtefmut, justified’.”

    According to directories of the day, he was Thomas Coates, not Coats.
    Pigot’s directory of 1828-9 has him as “Thomas Coates, esq, Lipwood hall, near Haydon bridge”. Haydon bridge is a village about 6 miles west of Hexham.

  4. John – that’s wonderful – thank you so much. I’ve seen Thomas as both Coates and Coats, and his godson, Thomas Coats Leslie, definitely used that spelling, but if Coates is the dominant one I’ll go with that in future.

  5. The Northumberland poll-book; containing a list of the freeholders who voted at the contested elections for the county of Northumberland in the years 1747-8, 1774, and in Feb. and March, 1826. Including a complete collection of the papers which appeared in 1774, and the authentic papers, speeches, &c. relating to the election in Feb. and March, 1826

    He is Thomas Coates, Esq, Lipwood House in this source.

  6. The modern day web site
    http://www.nhsn.ncl.ac.uk/news/cms/newcastle-mummies/
    spells his name “Coates”, and contemporary directories spell his name as Coats or Coates, and give his residence as Lipwood hall or house.

    According to an 1876 history of Haydon bridge, Thomas Coats died on the 13th of January, 1828, aged 53 years, so I looked for probate information.
    I now think I have found definitive sources as to the way the family spelled his name.
    On the front page of the “Newcastle Courant” of Saturday, 22 March 1828 there is an advertisement by Messrs. Fenwick, Solicitors, of Newcastle:

    “IT is requested, that an Account of all Demands (not sent in) against THOMAS COATS, late of Lipwood House, Esquire, be forwarded to Messrs. Fenwick, and all Debts due to the said Thomas Coats, at the Time of his Death, are to be immediately paid to the said Messrs. Fenwick, who are duly authorised by the Executors of the said Thomas Coats, to receive the same.”

    From Durham University probate records:
    “DPRI/1/1828/C14 6 March 1828
    Thomas COATS, Lipwood house near Hexham in the county of Northumberland, No 2 Henrietta street in the parish of St Mary lebon in the county of Middlesex [Hexham, Northumberland; St Marylebone, Middlesex]
    Registered copy: DPRI/2/39 p139-142
    DPRI/1/1828/C14/1-2 8 January 1828
    will”

  7. This is what footnotes, or endnotes, are for. Put the mummy there, and say something along the lines of, “this is too delicious a story to leave out entirely, although it’s entirely extraneous”… It works, your readers will enjoy it, and it will be in the record.

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