One of the objects in our museum is fake. A genuine, Victorian forgery. This might seem a little odd to say but the historic value of the forgery is almost as great as the object it supposedly mimics. At the back of one of our cabinets is a statuette of an Egyptian figure and despite it’s convincing appearance at first glance it is, in fact, a Victorian era forgery. It is a historical artefact that helps us to explore the Victorian and Edwardian obsession with Egypt.
The British Victorians were entranced with the concept of Egyptian history, they took the time to indulge in all sorts of macabre events that centred around mummies and ancient Egyptian remains.
The rise of Victorian mysticism fed into the fetishization of artefacts and the ancient Egyptian way of life. This fascination on behalf of the Victorians is not surprising considering the ancient culture was so entwined with the concept of death and the afterlife. The Victorian desire to explore the macabre and the gothic feasted on the ideas they held of Egyptian culture; at the time there was a rise in seances and esoteric beliefs regarding death, this created a market for artefacts associated with these topics. Feasting was not just reserved for the conceptual and ethereal, no, the reasons that mummified remains are rare now is due to the taste that the Victorian people had for grinding up and consuming them. ‘Mumia’ originally was simply a ground up mineral, bitumen, referred to as mineral pitch. However, with the mistranslation it soon became acceptable to consider Mumia to mean embalming minerals scraped from mummified remains. It was only a short hop then to grinding up the entire mummy for medical consumption. In that light, maybe forging statuettes as souvenirs is a less macabre way of Victorians appreciating the ancient Egyptian way of life.
The fakes and forgeries were not always intended to deceive, in much the same way as we would purchase trinkets from museum gift shops, some were just recreations to bring home and decorate the house with. These replicas would have no false provenance and would be explicitly bought and sold as totemic representations of the artefacts they mimicked. This is where it muddies the waters: are all non-authentic Egyptian artefacts ‘fakes’ or could some just be considered replicas? The item in our museum though, is a definite forgery; a contemporary item that is claimed to have genuine ancient roots with intent to deceive individuals over its origins.
The desecration of ancient corpses however, was not limited to cannibalism. No, for Victorians gathering around with your friends and hosting an ‘unwrapping party’ was just a jolly weekend get together. An unwrapping party was simply the unscientific and anti-archaeological process of getting a mummy, getting your mates and… unwrapping the thing like a gift from under the Christmas tree. These events were focused on the performance and interaction with the preserved remains. This was a phenomenon diametrically opposed to our current ideas around preservation and collection within the heritage sector. Egyptomania influenced art and culture to such a degree that we can see it in the Washington monument in the USA, it was a fevered desire to explore the ‘foreign’ and the ‘other’ in a distinctly imperialistic manner.
After Napoleon’s wars in the region, the French founded research institutes and began excavations. They documented and unearthed evidence of the ancient civilisation as well as collecting hundreds of thousands of archaeological artefacts. However, after the French surrender the British seized the artefacts they had unearthed and in this claimed the famous Rosetta stone for the British museum. This then, became a point of pride and interest for the people and began the boom for the Egyptian artefact trade. It also helped to muddy the waters regarding the provenance of certain items, with them changing hands so often records became lost or misattributed. This only aided the ease in which forgeries could enter the market.
The romanticising of the ancient way of life, combined with nationalistic pride and a voyeuristic interest in death, the macabre and the occult fed a frenzy for ancient objects. This was the era of Egyptomania. Here then, we circle back to our Victorian forgery. In order to meet demand for the ancient objects unscrupulous dealers soon began the process of manufacturing items that would fit the needs of individuals who wanted something from a mysterious land they had no hope of ever seeing. The object in our museum tells us more about the frenzy that Victorians found themselves wrapped up in than it does about actual Ancient Egyptian culture.
Forgeries fuelled the Egyptian artefact trade, with even professionals being duped by the volume and standard of the fakes that flooded the market. Auctioneers occasionally lended a hand to inflate the importance or obscure the provenance of certain artefacts. Our little fake statuette tells us of the desire of the Victorian people to own and explore the ‘other’ and the ‘foreign’, to engage in spiritualism and mysticism. It may tell us nothing about ancient Egyptian culture or values, it certainly tells us a lot about the values of Victorian Britain at the time.