Unwrapping of a Mummy, 1935–36 season
Harry Burton (English, 1879–1940)
The Egyptian Expedition of The Metropolitan Museum of Art
Gelatin silver prints; 2 3/4 x 8 1/2 in. (7 x 21.6 cm)
(M16C 106, 107, 352–354)
In the days before portable X-ray machines and CT scans, mummies were routinely unwrapped. This was the only way to find out what the mummies contained and to learn about the process of mummification. Photographs were taken at various stages of the unwrapping, and careful notes recorded each layer of bandaging and each object contained in the burial. When the process was completed, the body was examined, covered again with some of its original wrappings, and reburied in one of the tombs at Thebes.
Burton has introduced a temporal element to his still photographs in this nearly cinematic sequence of images. Together, the images describe a transformation: from an artistic and ritual object (the carved coffin); to a mysterious package (something like Man Ray's Enigma of Isidore Ducasse of 1920 or Christo's wrapped objects of the early 1960s); to a bandaged person, oddly full of pathos (the eleventh layer of unwrapping, according to Burton's notation); to human remains. While the coffin and mummified body—so different from one another—remain, the intermediate steps exist only in Burton's photographs.