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Edward Burne-Jones, The Last Sleep of Arthur in Avalon, painted probably using Mummy Brown. (Wikimedia Commons)

Ground Up Mummies Were Once an Ingredient in Paint

In 1964, the manufacturer who made Mummy Brown reportedly ran out of mummies to grind up

smithsonian.com

If the paintings of the Pre-Raphaelite brotherhood look otherworldly, that’s because in some ways they are. The brown paint the artists used was called Mummy Brown, because it was actually made out of ground up Egyptian mummies.

Gledon Mellow at the blog Symbiartic explains that the brown was good for mixing, and fell somewhere between raw umber’s nearly green brown and burnt umber’s ruddy tone. Mellow writes:

The pigment itself wasn’t easily imitated. It wasn’t just made of regular long-dried out corpses. The mummification process involved asphaltum or bitumen, often in place of the removed organs. Whole mummies were then ground for commercial and just plain wrong use. Mummy Brown was a fugitive colour, meaning it faded easily. While it was easy for 19th century painters to give up using it due to ick, gross it was still manufactured long after. That practice didn’t end until the 1960s, when paint companies more or less ran out.

When one of the Pre-Raphaelite painters found out about the origin of Mummy Brown, he was pretty disturbed. Philip McCouat, an art historian, has a longer history of the pigment, and in it quotes Edward Burnes-Jones’s wife, who remembers when her husband learned of the pigments origin. 

Edward scouted [scornfully rejected] the idea of the pigment having anything to do with a mummy — said the name must be only borrowed to describe a particular shade of brown — but when assured that it was actually compounded of real mummy, he left us at once, hastened to the studio, and returning with the only tube he had, insisted on our giving it decent burial there and then. So a hole was bored in the green grass at our feet, and we all watched it put safely in, and the spot was marked by one of the girls planting a daisy root above it”

According to McCouat, Burnes-Jones was friends with Rudyard Kipling, who later found a tube of Mummy Brown and buried it in the yard to try and right the wrongs of using it as paint. In 1964, the manufacturer who made Mummy Brown reportedly ran out of mummies to grind up. ““We might have a few odd limbs lying around somewhere,” the managing director said, “but not enough to make any more paint. We sold our last complete mummy some years ago for, I think, £3. Perhaps we shouldn't have. We certainly can't get any more.”

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About Rose Eveleth
Rose Eveleth

Rose Eveleth is a writer for Smart News and a producer/designer/ science writer/ animator based in Brooklyn. Her work has appeared in the New York Times, Scientific American, Story Collider, TED-Ed and OnEarth.

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