Reality or urban legend: were the wrappings of ancient Egyptian corpses recycled and pulped to create so-called "mummy paper?" Archaeologists and other scholars have long debated the veracity of claims that mummies were imported into the U.S. in the mid-nineteenth century, stripped of their burial shrouds, and their bindings (largely composed of linen and other fibers such as papyrus and something akin to canvas) repurposed into printing paper. But, did this really happen? Are we being fleeced? Is this a fabricated tale? Can this yarn be unwound to get to the meat of the matter?
The answer to this puzzler, perhaps the holy grail of American Egyptology research (pardon the mixed metaphor), may have at long last been found at Brown University's John Hay Library. According to independent scholar and self-taught Egyptologist S.J. Wolfe, a document found in university's rare book collection is "the smoking gun" that proves mummies were mulched for newsprint.
S.J. Wolfe, Egyptologist, Stands Beside "my dear friend Padihershef." (Courtesy Ms. Wolfe.)
It wouldn't be the first time human remains have graced the Hay Library's stacks: included in its holdings are three examples of anthropodermic bibliopegy, that is, books bound in human skin. (Andreas Vesalius's anatomy text, "De Humani Corpis Fabrica," and two editions of the folktale "Dance of Death," the skinny epidermises a result of 19th Century rebindings by private collectors.)
Richard Noble, a rare book cataloger at the Hay, answered an online inquiry from Wolfe seeking to find a fiber of truth to the story that mummies were indeed transplanted to the US in the mid-1800's, specifically, to use their high-quality wrappings as pulp material for manufacturing rag paper. (The actual corpora delicti, along with their sarcophagi and other personal effects, becoming just so much collateral impedimenta.)
Wolfe and Noble point to the so-called "Norwich Broadside," in the Hay Library as their supporting evidence that ancient mummified corpse wrappings were indeed the raw material used by New England paper mills beginning in the 1850's, when the supply of European-imported rags began to dwindle. (At the time, America was producing more newspapers than any other county, and using a staggering 405,000,000 pounds of rags per year to manufacture paper.) This broadside is titled “Hymn: for the bi-centennial anniversary of the settlement of Norwich, Conn.”  and was printed on paper supplied by the Chelsea Manufacturing Company of Norwich, Connecticut. A notice, printed on the program, states that it was composed of material imported from Egypt, and taken directly from the ancient tombs where it had been used in embalming mummies. This document, says Wolfe, "was the key [until] we found supporting evidence." It is the first printed piece that actually documents using mummy wrappings for paper that she has come across in her research. There are only two copies of this broadside currently known to exist: the one at Brown University and another at the Connecticut Historical Society.
Wolfe has since uncovered the existence of 1850's New England paper mills that manufactured paper from mummy wrappings. The mummies were unspooled and their linen rags were washed before being processed, she says. “This whole 19th-century attitude is incomprehensible to us — we’re so into preservation now." Some mummies were even “hacked at with axes and knives,” by these Yankee corpse-grinders in order to separate the linen wrappings from the mortal remains.
In the mid-nineteenth century, Egyptomania was still rampant, so putting together paper manufacturing and top of the line linen harvested from ancient cadavers would sew up a good portion of the market, and, it was hoped, on the cheap. An early example, perhaps, of respecting the environment: trees no longer need to lose their lives for almighty paper. What were once skin wraps became fodder for the rag trade.
In civilian life, Wolfe is a senior cataloger and serials specialist at the American Antiquarian Society in Worcester, Mass. But she really loves her mummies. Wolfe is currently compiling a comprehensive database of all Egyptian mummies and mummy disarticulations that remain in the U.S. Thus far, Wolfe says she has some 1,250 entries, representing about 550 individuals.
Each entry in the database is cataloged according to 25 categories, including the sex of the mummy, when he/she was first imported into the U.S., and the repository where the remains are housed. Wolfe says she hopes to post the completed database on the the Internet. This labor of love has been especially difficult: “Because I’m not affiliated with a university or a doctoral program, it has been hard to get information.” Prior to her own investigation, scant research had been done in documenting the transmigration of cadavers from ancient Egypt to the new world.
Summing up much of her decade-long mummy research, Wolfe is the author of “Mummies in Nineteenth Century America: Ancient Egyptians as Artifacts,” published in 2009. She hopes it's just the beginning of a much longer paper trail: “What I would dearly love to do is produce a field book of mummies in American museums.”