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Searching for Ancient Dead in the Modern Age

Posted on 11/15/2010

Our guest blogger today is SJ Wolfe, Senior Cataloguer at the American Antiquarian Society and Independent Mummyologist 

SJ Wolfe and 19th-century mummy Padihershef

When I began my project ten years ago I was told I would find about 350 mummies. After looking through literally thousands of digital newspaper articles and recording the finds in my own database, I am pleased to report that as of October 2010 I have found 1,534 mummy-related articles representing about 850 individuals. Many of these mummies are mentioned in passing and would not have been found without America's Historical Newspapers. As more titles get digitized, I discover not only more information about mummies I have already identified, but also new individuals.

The first result of this digital scholarship was the book Mummies in 19th Century America: Ancient Egyptians as Artifacts (McFarland, 2009). The second result will be an interactive, Web-based version of my database which will allow mummyologists worldwide to search and sort on 27 different access points for each mummy, including name, sex, owner, dynasty, date of arrival, etc. The database, tentatively titled The North American Mummy Database, is targeted to be online in 2011 through the Egyptologists Electronic Forum. The third result of my research has been many invitations to lecture on at conferences, museums and libraries across the United States, including a prized invitation to lead a symposium on mummy research in the digital age and to give a presentation on “mummy paper” at the 7th World Congress on Mummy Studies in San Diego in June 2011. 

From America's Historical Newspapers

In addition, another book is in the works, covering the mummy in literature, poetry and politics. A collaborative effort among several mummyologists who have an interest in the mummy as inspiration, the working title is The Mummy Speaks: Egyptian Mummies in Literature, Humor and Politics. A few mummy stories and poems are already known, but searching through the historical newspapers has given us a treasure trove of hitherto unknown source materials which may change the direction of scholarship in this field. None of this research could be accomplished without digitization, as the information is scattered across time and space and no one would have the actual time to leaf through millions of issues of newspapers in hopes of finding the stories, poems, jokes, articles and ephemeral mentions of the ancient Egyptian dead. I am sure as Readex continues to expand America’s Historical Newspapers we’ll find much, much, more, and to that I say “Hooray—bring it on! [Editor's note:  For more on mummymania in 19th-century America, see Wolfe's article "A Few More of These Egyptian Carcasses in the April 2010 issue of The Readex Report.]

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