Angela Stienne
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The White mummy
in Mummified
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This chapter explores the popular nineteenth-century theory that ancient Egyptians were in fact white people. It begins with the story of Saartjie Baartman, also known as the ‘Hottentot Venus’, an African woman who was taken to Europe in the early nineteenth century and used to promote the development of ‘scientific racism’.

Scientific racism drew on the work of Georges Cuvier, who pioneered the field of comparative anatomy. He used Baartman’s body to argue for his theory that White people and Black people are different species. Cuvier’s theory fed into another question that was being heatedly discussed at the time: whether the ancient Egyptians were Black or White. Many Europeans refused to accept that such an advanced civilisation could be related to the modern-day inhabitants of Africa, and sought any means they could find to prove their belief, including craniology and other pseudo-sciences.

The rest of the chapter recounts several incidents where mummies were dissected to prove that they possessed distinctive White features, by Johann Friedrich Blumenbach, Augustus Bozzi Granville and others, before returning to Saartjie Baartman, whose remains were restored to South Africa for burial in 2002.

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The stories behind Egyptian mummies in museums


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