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Golden Mummies of Egypt

More than 1,000,000 visitors enjoyed this blockbuster exhibition.

Golden Mummies of Egypt closed on 14 April 2024 after a blockbuster run that welcomed more than a million visitors in China, the USA and Manchester.

It was the first exhibition to grace the new Exhibition Hall at Manchester Museum after it reopened in February 2023 and explored mummies, gold and an obsessive belief in the afterlife. These concepts are all central to our image of ‘Ancient Egypt’ but how important were they to the Egyptians, and how long did they survive after the last of the Pharaohs?

Golden Mummies of Egypt focused on expectations of a life after death during the relatively little-known ‘Graeco-Roman’ Period of Egyptian history – when Egypt was ruled first by a Greek royal family, ending with Queen Cleopatra VII, then by Roman emperors (between 300 BCE and 300 CE). Wealthy members of this multicultural society made elaborate preparations for the afterlife, combining Egyptian, Greek, and Roman ideals of eternal beauty.

Manchester Museum cares for 18,000 objects from Egypt and Sudan. Excavated at a time of British rule of Egypt in the 1880s-1910s, our responses to these objects may reveal more about ourselves than about the people who made and used them. Keep scrolling to find out more!

Life in a Multicultural Society

Egypt was always in contact with neighbouring cultures, and was never as isolated as it is often portrayed. Plentiful evidence survives for trade with Nubia to the south of Egypt and around the Mediterranean for centuries under the Pharaohs, and many non-Egyptians came to live in Egypt. But relations between peoples were not always peaceful and there were sometimes violent struggles for power. During the Graeco-Roman Period, some of these events are recorded in papyrus documents.

A dynasty of Macedonian origin called the Ptolemies ruled Egypt from 323-30 BCE. They built their capital at Alexandria on the coast looking towards their homeland, but they appeared as traditional Pharaohs temple walls throughout Egypt. They developed farmland in the fertile Faiyum area to house new settlers from Greece and Rome; much of the exhibition’s objects derive from this area.

Ideas about the Afterlife

During the Graeco-Roman Period, preparations for death and the afterlife were influenced by Egyptian, Greek and Roman traditions. Greeks and Romans had rather bleak expectations for an existence after death. However, the Egyptian afterlife offered them the possibility of being reborn into a bright, perfected version of this world, to join with Osiris, the god of rebirth and ruler of the Underworld, and to live on for eternity.

The funeral was an important opportunity to display wealth and status. Coffins, masks and mummy decorations were bright and eye-catching, involving costly materials for the wealthy. These show the deceased as alive and awake, at the moment of rebirth – magically assuring that this would be the case. People are depicted as perfect versions of themselves; even those who died as children appear as if they had grown up, so they could enjoy the afterlife to the full.

Becoming a God

In Egyptian tradition, the gods were immortal. In order to attain an eternal presence among the gods the deceased had – in some sense – to become one. Dead men and women could become one with Osiris, the god of rebirth, and by Graeco-Roman times deceased women could merge with Hathor, the Mistress of the West – where the sun set.

In order to achieve this goal, the body of the deceased had to undergo special ritual preparations available in their fullest only to the wealthy. The creation and appearance of a wrapped mummy replicated the ancient form of an Egyptian god. Egyptian deities were said to have flesh of untarnishable gold and hair of semi-precious lapis lazuli stone, so those who could afford it often had a coffin, mask or other covering decorated with gold leaf with a head covering painted in blue. Armed with this divine imagery was the best means of triumphing over death.

The Art of Identity

Roman Period painted mummy panels – the so-called ‘Faiyum Portraits’ – are amongst the most striking images from the Ancient World. Their discovery in the 1880s changed what people had thought about the development of art. Although the portraits have been found at sites all over Egypt, examples from the Faiyum region are especially numerous. Each image was built up on a thin wooden panel using a mixture of hot wax and pigment, creating a life-like effect that appeals to modern tastes.

This technique of portrait painting likely originated in ancient Italy. Like earlier mummy masks, portrait panels were originally attached to cover the face of the deceased, to provide an eternal – but probably idealised – face for the deceased. Portrait mummies were rarely identified by name and we cannot know if the people portrayed actually looked as they do in their portraits, or even if they were painted before death. Despite modern attempts to characterise them in terms of age, race or class, these faces resist categorisation.

Meeting the gods

Most people in Egypt were not allowed access to the sacred enclosures of the gods’ temples, and could only see the divine images and hieroglyphs on the monumental exterior walls. Everyday encounters with deities frequently took the form of small terracotta figurines in homes; these appear more Greek or Roman than Egyptian. However, after death ancient Egyptian gods – usually with their distinctive animal heads – were invoked to help the deceased. Thus, the jackal headed god Anubis remained popular into Roman times, and is often shown with a key to help the deceased gain entry into the afterlife

Even after Egyptian hieroglyphs ceased to be commonly understood, they appeared – along with sometimes elaborate images of the gods – on the funerary decorations of the wealthy. These were believed to envelop the deceased with magical, divine power to ensure a successful transition into the afterlife.

Transforming the body

The aim of the ritual of mummification was not simply to preserve the body; it was to create a perfect, everlasting version of the deceased, one that resembled the form of an Egyptian god. In this way, the spirit would have a physical home in order to enjoy the afterlife.

Creating a mummy was an elaborate and costly process, and was only fully performed for the wealthy. Necessary materials included natron (a sodium chloride compound to purify and dry the body), plant resins to make the body fragrant, and large quantities of linen fabric to wrap the body (healing the corpse back to life, like a bandage round a wound). All of these processes – purification, anointing, wrapping – were also performed in temples on statues of gods; they were conducted by specialists in order to ritually transform something (a human corpse, a wooden statue) into a god-like being.

Mummification techniques are often said to have declined during the Roman Period, with focus shifting to the outer decoration of the mummy. Today CT-scans and X-rays provide an insight beneath the bandages that we were never supposed to gain. For this reason, no medical images of human remains appear in the exhibition.


The many thousands of Egyptian antiquities now in museums around the world did not arrive by chance. Archaeologists, workmen, collectors and patrons all played their part. British colonial control of Egypt – especially between 1882 and the 1920s – enabled Western archaeologists to excavate at sites and to claim a share of their finds from the Egyptian government. In the West, collectors – from national museums to individual hobbyists – wanted to own a piece of ancient Egypt, and drove the industry of excavation, acquisition and interpretation.

Flinders Petrie was very interested in the ‘race’ of the mummies he found, interpreting the appearance of the Faiyum portraits and collecting the skulls of mummies to try to investigate this. He concluded that most were Greek settlers in Egypt, although we now know the elite population of Hawara was much more mixed. Building on Western fascination with Egyptian mummies and immortality, the display of the Faiyum portraits even inspired Oscar Wilde to write his novel A Picture of Dorian Gray.

Image: ‘Loves Jewelled Fetter’ by Lawrence Alma-Tadema (1895), featuring a panel portrait – perhaps inspired by Alma-Tadema’s visit to Petrie’s exhibition of portraits in 1888.

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