Give ancient Egyptians the respect they deserve - Museums Association

Give ancient Egyptians the respect they deserve

‘Mummies’ should stay in the realms of fiction, says Margaret Maitland
Profile image for Margaret Maitland
Margaret Maitland

Ancient Egyptians called their mummified dead “noble ones”. Thousands of years ago, they were honoured, but their treatment since then has been very different. Recently, there was a flurry of media coverage about some institutions – including National Museums Scotland – deciding to stop using the word “mummy”.

Some reactions were negative, but the strong attachment to the word may say more about how accustomed we are to seeing the bodies of ancient Egyptian people. Using “mummified people” in museums can help visitors think differently about these displays.

The word mummy comes from the Arabic for “bitumen” (mummiya), which is thought to be the preserving agent on the bodies. The word was popularised in 18th- and 19th-century Europe, when ancient Egyptian mummified bodies were used as ingredients to make medicine, paint and even fertiliser.

The unwrapping and dissection of mummified bodies were performed for public entertainment and “scientific research”, yielding little information even as they destroyed the bodies. This fuelled “curse of the mummy” stories that explored the uneasy mix of fascination and fear, desire and repulsion, and of coloniser towards colonised.

Today, mummies are familiar and yet still seen as strange. Much of what people think they know about mummification comes from oversimplified accounts. Despite so much writing surviving from antiquity, we rarely consider what ancient Egyptians thought.

After a person died, the mummification process was intended to preserve and transform their inert corpse into a rejuvenated and empowered divine being. That’s why the ancient Egyptian word for mummy is “sah”, which means noble one or honoured one. The preservation of a person’s name was considered just as important, something that was often stripped from ancient Egyptians who became “mummies”.


The National Museum of Scotland holds a papyrus written for a man named Montsuef, who died in 9BCE, that includes rare descriptions of embalming rituals.  It reminds him “you grew old on earth in a happy life”, and promises “your spirit will be rejuvenated in your body as you rest within your sarcophagus”.

It emphasises Montsuef’s identity: his name, titles and parentage. It tells of his good deeds, his standing in the community and the family that he left behind, to justify his rebirth. Montsuef may have been mummified,  but he was much more than just a “mummy”.

In 2016, I proposed that we use “mummified people” in our exhibition  The Tomb: Ancient Egyptian Burial.  The term is instantly understandable, while helping to restore these individuals’ humanity and agency. 

We continued this approach in our permanent ancient Egypt gallery, which opened in 2019. Few visitors have noticed the change, and we’ve received only positive feedback from those who have. 

Some scholars argue that using a different word is unnecessary, and that sensationalising mummy stories encourages public interest in the past. But when mummified people are still presented as “spooky”, rather than taken seriously, due respect cannot be given to the ancient Egyptian dead. 

“Mummies” will undoubtedly continue to feature in television and film, but that’s where they should remain – in the realms  of fiction. Museums can do better. 


Of course, a change in language is not an end in itself, but it will help us to discuss how mummified people should be treated in the future. 

At National Museums Scotland, we are actively researching the colonial histories of Egyptology, and creating opportunities for conversations about these collections.

It’s not just the bodies of these “noble ones” that have survived for thousands of years, but their voices too. We owe it to them to listen and to learn.

Margaret Maitland is the principal curator, ancient Mediterranean, at National Museums Scotland

Photograph by Phil Wilkinson

Comments (1)

  1. Jason Semmens says:

    Even a five year old can comprehend that mummified remains displayed in museums are the remains of dead individuals without the need to refer to them as ‘mummified people.’ The artificially preserved corpse was just one aspect of an individual’s afterlife according to ancient Egyptian belief, and for elite individuals who could afford the process at that. Quite what poor Egyptians who could not afford to be embalmed believed is not so readily apparent from the written sources.

    The term ‘mummy’ is also commonly used to refer to the preserved remains of humans and animals from cultures other than ancient Egypt. Many have undergone the intervention of an embalming process, while others have been desiccated by natural means.

    Rather than obsess about “restoring these individual’s humanity and agency” by dropping a well-established term understood by the visiting public (and besides, in most cases we know very little about the biographies of individual ancient Egyptians), curators would do better by explaining the significance of the embalming process and the beliefs surrounding it, and yes, presenting what has also been learned about the ancient Egyptians from the scientific study of these preserved human remains using intrusive and non-intrusive techniques.

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