The Wrapped Body: Linen, Concealment, and Mummification in Ancient Egypt

  • Riggs, Christina (Principal Investigator)

Project Details


This project investigates the use of linen textiles as the material for wrapping - from mummy bandages to shrouded gods, and from temple veils to royal costumes. In ancient Egypt, wrapping and shrouding the body - whether living or dead, human or divine - was a cultural practice revealing how the Egyptians thought about the human body and how they experienced the sacred. Wrapping also helps us understand Egyptian ideas about 'secret' knowledge and initiation, and the role secrecy plays in the organization of a complex society.

The wrapping of bodies both concealed them and gave them power. The act of wrapping parallels other features of Egyptian society; for instance, the physical space inside temples, tombs, and palaces was designed to restrict access. Offerings in temples, or objects that were placed in tombs, including mirrors or statues, were often wrapped up, and the statues of gods were wrapped in fresh linen every morning and evening. Several aspects of learning were described as 'secret', such as reading and writing (fewer than 5% of the population were literate), art and manufacturing techniques, and mummification itself. The Egyptians also 'wrapped' the surfaces of buildings by decorating them with elaborate images and texts, and wrapping played a key role in medical treatments (e.g. bandaging wounds) as well as magic, where spells could be spoken over linen and knotted up to help them work.

Although human mummies are the best-known example of Egyptian wrapping practice, European interest in mummies has focused on their unwrapping, which physically reverses the ancient Egyptian ritual. Archaeologists often recorded how statues or other objects were wrapped when they found them, but the archaeologists usually unwrapped the objects and discarded the wrapping. In this context, it is also important to evaluate why and how the 19th and 20th century unwrapping of ancient remains relates to Europe's colonization of Egypt. Such destructive practices, and the display of unwrapped mummies in museums, are an ongoing legacy of this historical period, because owning and having power over the ancient remains helped justify owning and having power over Egypt itself in colonial times.

By analyzing wrapping and concealment in ancient Egypt as well as our own culture's practice of unwrapping the Egyptians, this project considers Egyptian mummies from the positive viewpoint of the ancient Egyptians, not as macabre objects of curiosity. Studying mummies and other wrapped bodes in this way offers essential new insights into both ancient Egyptian culture and our own.
Effective start/end date1/01/1130/06/11


  • Arts and Humanities Research Council: £36,555.00