The best books to explain why there’s an Egyptian mummy in your back garden

Who am I?

When at 13, I declared that I’d become an Egyptologist, quite a lot of people thought it would pass. Fast forward 10 years, and I was starting a PhD on Egyptian mummies in museums – it did not pass. I journeyed from the Louvre where I was a gallery attendant trying to uncover the story of bodies buried in their garden, to England where I relocated with little English to pursue an Egyptology degree… and then two more! The ethics of human remains in museums is a complex topic: that’s why I like to make it more approachable to the public, from running my project Mummy Stories, to giving talks in pubs! 

I wrote...

Mummified: The Stories Behind Egyptian Mummies in Museums

By Angela Stienne,

Book cover of Mummified: The Stories Behind Egyptian Mummies in Museums

What is my book about?

You’re probably thinking: a mummy in my garden, what a curious idea. And yet, that’s exactly what happened at the Louvre. You probably don’t live inside a castle, but it’s more common than you’d imagine. And the reason is at the core of this book: Egyptian mummified bodies can be found just about anywhere, but we’ve stopped asking why. 

This book is all about asking why. It follows my own journey at the Louvre, asking one too many questions. It follows ancient bodies displaced for quite curious, and at times rather awful, reasons. And it’s your journey, too, one of learning and unlearning the history of museums and Egyptology. Don’t go checking in your garden but do go ask museums one too many questions.

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The books I picked & why

The Mummy's Foot

By Theophile Gautier,

Book cover of The Mummy's Foot

Why did I love this book?

This short story involves a Frenchman, an antique store, a mummified foot, and a little too much wine.

We understand mummified bodies better by placing them in context. The other books do that historically, but this one does something very well: it showcases the enduring obsession with Egyptian mummies coming to life, in a rather enthralling fiction story, by a French writer.

I like it especially because Gautier did see the foot in question in the collection of a man called Dominique Vivant Denon, who is central to French museums, and to Egyptology, and brought the foot from Napoleon’s expedition.

I imagine Denon and Gautier having a chat: the fine line between fantasy and reality, ever so paradigmatic of France’s attitude to foreign bodies collecting.

By Theophile Gautier,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked The Mummy's Foot as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

This scarce antiquarian book is a facsimile reprint of the original. Due to its age, it may contain imperfections such as marks, notations, marginalia and flawed pages. Because we believe this work is culturally important, we have made it available as part of our commitment for protecting, preserving, and promoting the world's literature in affordable, high quality, modern editions that are true to the original work.

Book cover of The Archaeology of Race: The Eugenic Ideas of Francis Galton and Flinders Petrie

Why did I love this book?

This was the first book to introduce me to the relation between race studies, eugenics, and archaeology.

It was quite a revelation: I was volunteering at the Petrie Museum at the time, and the book uncovers the dodgy relationship between Petrie and Francis Galton.

It was pivotal in transforming the ways I looked at familiar places: it reminded me that places I called home, like the Petrie Museum but also the Louvre, have been very exclusionary to many. It taught me to look differently at places I navigate on a regular basis, to look for the other story.

You’ll then have to listen to the Bricks + Mortals podcast on the history of UCL buildings, and your wanders in Bloomsbury won’t be the same again.

By Debbie Challis,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked The Archaeology of Race as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

How much was archaeology founded on prejudice? The Archaeology of Race explores the application of racial theory to interpret the past in Britain during the late Victorian and Edwardian period. It investigates how material culture from ancient Egypt and Greece was used to validate the construction of racial hierarchies. Specifically focusing on Francis Galton's ideas around inheritance and race, it explores how the Egyptologist Flinders Petrie applied these in his work in Egypt and in his political beliefs. It examines the professional networks formed by societies, such as the Anthropological Institute, and their widespread use of eugenic ideas in analysing…

Book cover of Morbid Curiosities: Medical Museums in Nineteenth-Century Britain

Why did I love this book?

It took me far too long to explore the history of medicine and the links between Egyptian mummies and medicine. Now, that’s all I talk about, and this book was pivotal in doing just that.

It’s a fascinating dive into the collections of human remains in Britain but is also an observation of the construction of medical knowledge through bodies. It is an academic book, one that I couldn’t put down.

After reading it, I started to explore the history of mummies and medicine and uncovered another story about a mummified foot. While Denon and Gautier were drinking coffee in Paris talking about a mummified foot, someone else did the same over tea in London.

By Samuel J.M.M. Alberti,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Morbid Curiosities as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

In the first comprehensive study of nineteenth-century medical museums, Morbid Curiosities traces the afterlives of diseased body parts. It asks how they came to be in museums, what happened to them there, and who used them.

This book is concerned with the macabre work of pathologists as they dismembered corpses and preserved them: transforming bodies into material culture. The fragmented body parts followed complex paths - harvested from hospital wards, given to one of many prestigious institutions, or dispersed at auction. Human remains acquired new meanings as they were exchanged and were then reintegrated into museums as physical maps of…

Book cover of The Whole Picture: The colonial story of the art in our museums & why we need to talk about it

Why did I love this book?

The Whole Picture is a very recent book, that needs little introduction: that’s always the sign of a great book.

It does something very well: it explains what all those talks about looted art and artefacts and colonialism, and repatriation, are all about, without patronizing anyone, but without letting museums get away with their narratives either.

I remember reading it and thinking that it was about time I picked up my little idea and write my own book: I stand on the shoulders of fierce writers and thinkers and game-changers.

This book will make you ask questions, and it will make you avoid one Parisian museum in particular; and I very much concur this. You’ll have to read the book to find out which one.

By Alice Procter,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked The Whole Picture as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

"Probing, jargon-free and written with the pace of a detective story... [Procter] dissects western museum culture with such forensic fury that it might be difficult for the reader ever to view those institutions in the same way again. " Financial Times

'A smart, accessible and brilliantly structured work that encourages readers to go beyond the grand architecture of cultural institutions and see the problematic colonial histories behind them.' - Sumaya Kassim

Should museums be made to give back their marbles? Is it even possible to 'decolonize' our galleries? Must Rhodes fall?

How to deal with the colonial history of art…

Venus Noire: Black Women and Colonial Fantasies in Nineteenth-Century France

By Robin Mitchell, Manisha Sinha (editor), Richard S. Newman (editor), Patrick Rael (editor)

Book cover of Venus Noire: Black Women and Colonial Fantasies in Nineteenth-Century France

Why did I love this book?

I try to avoid big statements when they end up on the internet, in case my opinion changes. But this is the best research book I have read; and I do not believe my opinion on this will change.

Through the lens of three black women who lived in nineteenth-century Paris, Mitchell takes us on a journey to uncover the history of French representations of black women, the history of displaying black bodies, and racism in France.

If you read one book to understand why Egyptian mummified bodies have been collected, displayed, retained, and studied, this is your book.

It’s not a book about Egyptian mummies at all; it’s a book about the contexts that legitimized their possession, and the race studies that ensued, in Paris and London.

By Robin Mitchell, Manisha Sinha (editor), Richard S. Newman (editor), Patrick Rael (editor)

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Venus Noire as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Even though there were relatively few people of colour in post-revolutionary France, images of and discussions about black women in particular appeared repeatedly in a variety of French cultural sectors and social milieus. In Venus Noire, Robin Mitchell shows how these literary and visual depictions of black women helped to shape the country's post-revolutionary national identity, particularly in response to the trauma of the French defeat in the Haitian Revolution.

Venus Noire explores the ramifications of this defeat by examining visual and literary representations of three black women who achieved fame in the years that followed. Sarah Baartmann, popularly known…

5 book lists we think you will like!

Interested in mummies, colonies, and France?

9,000+ authors have recommended their favorite books and what they love about them. Browse their picks for the best books about mummies, colonies, and France.

Mummies Explore 16 books about mummies
Colonies Explore 64 books about colonies
France Explore 776 books about France

And, 3 books we think you will enjoy!

We think you will like The Mummy or Ramses the Damned, Egyptian Mummies, and An Ancient Egyptian Book of the Dead if you like this list.