Before you get wrapped up in the new exhibition Mummies: New Secrets from the Tombs, which opens on September 18 at the Natural History Museum, consider the fact that mummies were defined by what they wore.
When people in ancient Egypt (as well as nations in every other continent) died, their bodies were preserved. The Egyptians believed that a person’s spirit could only live on in the afterlife if the body was kept intact.
After being dehydrated, bodies were tightly wrapped in layers of thin linen. Priests would place small amulets and jewels in between the layers, and the linen costume was then coated in a moisture-repellent resin. Mummies were buried alongside functional items like furniture and dishes that they could use in the afterlife and were decorated with precious stones.
“Egyptians wore necklaces, mostly of semi-precious stones, such as turquoise, carnelian, agate, emerald, tourmaline, rose quartz, black onyx, amethyst, serpentine, malachite, topaz—all local,” says James L. Phillips, Curator of Ancient Egypt at the Field Museum in Chicago, where this exhibit was conceived. “Additionally, lapis lazuli and jadite were imported. Egyptians wore these stones in necklaces, bracelets, and, most importantly, on the inner sarcophagus.”
The beaded necklaces entombed with bodies were thought to restore breath, heart scarab amulets represented rebirth, and Eye of Horus charms provided protection from the “evil eye.” The amulets were inscribed with blessings so that the deceased would have an exceptional afterlife. Burial practices eventually became a status symbol for the wealthy (Tutankhamen’s death mask was made of solid gold), which, of course, led to an epidemic of tomb raiders.
How does all of this translate to style now? Cashmere wraps, bandage dresses, and even wrap dresses are very mummy-esque, and like mummies, many of us wear jewelry that symbolizes commitment, faith, protection, or the people that we love. Evil Eye charms, Eye of Horus charms, scarabs, and snakes are still common motifs in jewelry—both antique and new—and have even become popular as tattoos.
“There are a couple ways you could think about how mummies relate to style now,” says Rose Campbell, the exhibit’s curatorial consultant. “One way would be the desire to appear eternally youthful. Thousands of years ago, the Egyptians were depicting themselves in art such as coffins and mummy masks as young and attractive. Even elderly, infirm individuals had themselves portrayed as healthy and beautiful or handsome. Clearly the desire for eternal youth and beauty is not a new concept.”
Mummies: New Secrets From the Tomb will give you an up-close look at 18 wrapped bodies from ancient Egypt and Peru, richly decorated coffins, and more. You can even “un-wrap” a few to uncover the treasures that they were buried with. Tickets can be purchased here.