Ever since primitive man made his first mark on a cave wall, humans have crafted pigments out of things ranging from crushed minerals to charred plants.
But there’s one particular pigment that’s a bit darker, a shade more macabre, than the rest.
I am referring, of course, to “mummy brown.”
What is mummy brown? Ultimately, it’s exactly what it sounds like — a rich brown, somewhere between burnt and raw umber. While its origins can be traced back to ancient Egypt, it experienced a surge in popularity with the Pre-Raphaelite painters. This image, Martin Drolling’s Interior of a Kitchen, heavily relied on mummy brown.
Mummy brown wasn’t just a strangely evocative nickname, either.
The original recipes for mummy brown paint involved combining myrrh resin, white pitch, and powder made from ground-up human and feline mummies.
The manufacture of mummy brown was only one of the ways in which the preserved dead were exploited. Beginning in the 16th century, mummies had been ground up and used for medicine in the belief that the resins used in the mummification process had beneficial health properties. When Egyptomania struck during the 19th century, the wealthy even went so far as to host “unwrapping parties” — genuine mummies could be purchased from antiquities dealers with relative ease, and would be laid out and unwrapped after dinner parties as a source of entertainment.
Fortunately, creating mummy brown didn’t require as much from the dead as upscale unwrapping parties did. One manufacturer, operating in the early 1900s, claimed he could fill his customers’ orders for two decades with a single mummy. Nevertheless, the traditional recipe for mummy brown died out as the supply of mummies dried up. Many painters also began to have moral quandaries about the pigment’s origins — one story has painter Edward Burne-Jones giving his tube of mummy brown a ceremonial burial when he discovered where it came from.
Today, mummy brown is still available. Fear not, though — tubes manufactured today are made from a combination of hematite, goethite, quartz, and kaolin clay, and guaranteed to be free of ancient curses.