In A Nutshell
In the early 1920s, the Mississippi Department of Archives and History was the recipient of a generous donation of artifacts, including what was said to be an authentic Egyptian mummy. It was displayed as such for decades, until a medical student asked for permission to examine it more closely for a university project. He found it was actually made of papier-mache and some animal bones stuck on a wooden frame.
The Whole Bushel
There are a lot of archaeological fakes out there, and countless art forgeries. Many are done to exacting detail, taking skill and research to pull off the sale of such a forgery. But the mummy that still resides at the Old Capitol Museum in Mississippi . . . that’s another story.
Sometime in the early 1920s, the museum was given what they must have thought was a priceless artifact. It was said to be an authentic Egyptian mummy, a tiny figure, probably a child. It went on display at the museum for decades, until 1967.
That was when a medical student named Gentry Yeatman petitioned the museum, asking to borrow its most prized possession for a university research project. His request was granted, and the mummy underwent closer scrutiny.
The first telling sign that something wasn’t quite right with the so-called mummy was the shreds of newspaper that were peeling from its back. The students went on to X-ray the mummy and found that it was, indeed, constructed on a wooden frame, held together with nails, and covered with papier-mache. Her “organs” were made of nails and clumps of newspaper; some of the newspaper was written in German, some pages bore dates from 1898. Those were the only real clues as to just where the mummy had come from and who had actually made it, something that’s a mystery even today.
Surprisingly, the mummy—renamed the Dummy Mummy—kept her place at the museum. Instead of being on display as a prized possession, she’s now in storage for most of the year. But once a year she is brought out and returned to her place as a display piece every October to celebrate the State Fair.
For decades, going to see the mummy was a big deal. She was important, she was special, and just where she came from didn’t matter to the people who saw her. Some nearby residents would go every Sunday to visit the mummy, and now, her displays are a reminder of those days.
During those decades that she held a place of honor in the collection, Mississippi residents remember the excitement of going to see such a piece of history, the thrill of having something ancient that was all their own. Authentic mummy or dummy stitched together from newspapers and boards, there was apparently always something powerful about the so-called artifact.
The idea of fake mummies fooling museum experts isn’t a new one, and it certainly has stopped today. As recently as 2002, X-rays have been used to discover forgeries at the Rosicurcian Museum in California when researchers discovered their baboon mummy wasn’t so much a mummy as it was a vase wrapped in bandages.
And in fact, at the turn of the 20th century (about the time the Dummy Mummy was thought to have been made), there were companies that would create authentic-looking fakes called gaffs. These gaffs were designed to fool the public in carnivals, sideshows, and traveling museums. The construction of many of these creatures could be convincingly real, and some of the best-known examples were on display at P.T. Barnum’s American Museum.