Mummy Dummy 2: Medieval Doctors and Their Patients
During the Middle Ages, many people came to believe that mummies had a medicinal value, especially those covered with bitumen or pitch. According to Christine El Mahdy, a medieval doctor in Cairo wrote that bitumen could be taken internally or applied to the outside of the body. But, he noted, if getting bitumen is a problem, "corpses may be substituted."
By the twelfth century, mummy powder was prescribed for wounds and bruises. But it became importantto distinguish among the various kinds of mummies. El Mahdy says that Egyptian doctors classified a mummy as one of four types:
1. Egyptian mummies preserved in bitumen
2. Artificial Egyptian mummies (made from bitumen and herbs but containing no body)
3. Arabic mummies (preserved in oils and spices but containing no bitumen)
4. Bodies buried and dried in the sand.
The bodies buried and dried in the sand were the least useful to doctors; such bodies were pulverized and used to relieve upset stomachs.
The first three types of mummies became a big business, however. Thousands of Egyptian mummies preserved in bitumen were ground up and sold as medicine. By the 1500s, though, the supply of mummies ran short and the bodies of executed criminals and deceased hospital patients were substituted. Merchants went so far, notes author Carol Andrews, as to bury the recently deceased in the sand to dry them out or to stuff them with bitumen and dry them in the sun. Egyptologist E. A. Wallis Budge wrote in his classic book The Mummy:
In the year 1564 a physician called Guy de la Fontaine made an attempt to see the stock of mummies of the chief merchant of mummies at Alexandria [Egypt], and he discovered that they were made from the bodies of slaves and others who had died from the most loathsome diseases. The traffic in mummies as a drug was stopped in a curious manner.
Not content to ransack Egyptian tombs for mummies, merchants turned to sources like the Canary Islands, off the northwest coast of Africa. The Guanche people once practiced mummymaking on these islands. After Spain invaded the Canary Islands in 1402, thousands of mummies were found in caves scattered across Tenerife, the largest island. It appeared that most of them had belonged to the Guanche aristocracy.
In 1526, a man named Thomas Nichols explored a cave containing approximately four hundred mummies. Many of the mummies were lying in the extended position, but some were standing straight up and others were hanging from the walls. In 1770, a cave containing 1,000 mummies was located between the towns of Arico and Guimar. And in 1773, a smaller mummy cave was found by a Captain Young who commanded the sloop Weasel. In this cave, the mummies were sewn up in goatskins. Young asked the local priest if he could buy one of the bodies. At first, the priest objected, but when Young offered him some gold, the priest allowed him to buy one. Young took the mummy back to England and presented it to Trinity College, Cambridge.
In all, five caves on Tenerife holding mummies were found, though some accounts reveal that at least twenty caves existed. Despite the number of mummies that were discovered on Tenerife, almost none are in existence today because most were turned into powder and sold as medicine. Those placed on display in museums have been removed from exhibit recently; therefore, it is no longer possible to see a Guanche mummy except in a photograph or illustration.