Friday, 14 November 2014

3rd Bram Stoker Birthday Lecture (10th November 2014)

Having been to the previous two Bram Stoker Birthday lectures, I was very much excited to attend the third event. The following is my summary and review of the lecture, though apologies for my terrible photos! Held on Monday 10th November (2014) at the University of Hull, the lecture by Joann Fletcher and Stephen Buckley was titled:

The Mummies of Stoker's Circle

The concept of the Stoker birthday lecture was explained by Dr Catherine Wynne of the University of Hull. The previous two lectures have been delivered by the renowned Gothic expert, Sir Christopher Frayling, at the University of Hull and then at the Whitby Museum. Sir Frayling suggested the birthday lecture back in April 2012. Whilst most people know of Stoker in relation to his 1897 novel Dracula, Catherine explained that the 3rd birthday lecture would move beyond this and examine Stoker's links to Hull via his 1903 novel The Jewel of Seven Stars. On a cold and autumnal evening, Catherine introduced two lecturers from the University of York to speak on the topic of the Egyptian mummies associated with the social circle of Stoker. 

Professor Joann Fletcher is an Honorary Visiting Professor in the Archaeology department at the University of York. She is an Egyptologist and explained immediately that her talk would focus on the scientific side of mummification, and the history of the mummies related to Stoker's circle, rather than any form of literary criticism. Professor Fletcher opened the lecture with a brief history of the Egyptian process of embalming, which we now know was a complex science from as far back as 4,400 BCE. She explained that she has worked on sites including the Valley of the Kings ("Perhaps the most impressive cemetery in the world"), and that the ancient Egyptians shared Dracula's view that 'blood is the life'. 

For me, one of the most interesting things that Professor Fletcher said was that her studies have taken her all over the world, but that some of the best samples she had obtained were from the two mummies housed in Hull. For those of you who are unaware, the Hull Museums Collection includes two Egyptian mummies in their coffins. They are currently on display in the Hands on History Museum. I personally 'met' the mummies when I did some work experience in the Collection archives whilst at college, and I had the task of changing silica gel bags in the storage boxes around where the mummies were kept. I can confirm that being in a very quiet and somewhat dark room with the two mummies was an especially creepy experience. 

As explained by Professor Fletcher, little is known about the 'Hull mummies' prior to the Second World War, as records were destroyed during the extensive bombing on the city. The mummies were, in fact, all but forgotten about until the 1970s. In 1986, an article in the local press caused a revival in interest. Following the 1997 opening of the Hands on History Museum, the wider world became aware of the two Hull mummies, and a conservation fund was established. It is known that the mummies were acquired for the Hull museums in 1930 by curator Thomas Sheppard, who paid just £15 for them. Sheppard drove the mummies to Hull from Whitby in his car. He had purchased them from Frank Meadow Sutcliffe of the Whitby Literary and Philosophical Society, who were responsible for the Whitby Museum. 

Professor Fletcher was able to establish that the mummies were originally from Luxor, Egypt, and were donated to the Whitby Museum by Sir George Eliot in 1903. The lecture went on to provide an explanation of the creation of the Royal Crescent in Whitby, and its relation to Elliot, as well as the arrival of Bram Stoker in Whitby. Stoker stayed in a house situated on the Royal Crescent for three weeks in 1890. It was during this time that he was influenced to write Dracula. It was at this point that the lecture moved away from Stoker's Whitby link, and began to focus on the interest he developed in Egyptology; part of the late Victorian obsession with the subject, and the catalyst for Stoker's 1903 novel The Jewel of Seven Stars

The novel follows a mummy princess who is resurrected as part of a 'great experiment'. It was written in a period when the public were absolutely fascinated by Egypt and the treasures that were being unearthed there, and the mysticism of mummies made for great literature. This passion for all things Egyptian reflects a time when fiction and Egyptology moved in the same vein. Stoker picked up on the spirit of the age by writing his Egyptian piece. Following Stoker's novel, and publications such as a short story by Doyle on the subject of cursed mummies, people began to view mummies with increasing suspicion. Once prized Egyptian artefacts were now feared and were subsequently donated to museums. 

At this point, Professor Fletcher handed over to Dr Stephen Buckley (an anthropological chemist, also based at the University of York) for him to discuss some of the science behind mummification. Dr Buckley interestingly pointed out that he very much agrees with Stoker's fictional Egyptologist, and that Stoker's work has clearly been well-researched from an Egyptology/scientific viewpoint. He felt that the linens, oils, resins, and spices described by Stoker are 'more perceptive' and that he was 'well ahead of his time'. Professor Fletcher added that Stoker had carefully researched the Hieroglyphs that he incorporated, and that these were accurate, along with the scarabs featured in the novel. 

The lecture went back to Professor Fletcher, who described the growing Egypt-mania in Victorian London, including the campaign started by Oscar Wilde's father to bring Cleopatra's Needle to London. She described the popularity of Egyptology amongst the literary elite, and the amusing yet somewhat cringe-worthy process of the Cairo Museum selling off items left, right, and centre because of the vast number of artefacts that had been found during the nineteenth century. Many of the items, including mummies, ended up being burnt as fuel, with only the 'pretty' examples making it to the relative safety of Europe. We were also told about the numerous 'mummy unwrapping' parties that took place as a bizarre form of parlour game. 

Professor Fletcher ended the lecture by going through some of the correspondence and texts relating to the Hull mummies, and how the texts were used to establish the providence of the mummies. She added that the long-term goals of the conservation fund is to sympathetically restore the mummies.

All in all the lecture was absolutely fascinating. As a resident of Hull I was delighted to hear about the history behind the 'Hull mummies'. As a literature student I found it very interesting to hear about the relation of Egyptology to literature, and the connection of real mummies to the social circle of Bram Stoker. 

Now I can sit back and anticipate what wonders will feature in the 4th birthday lecture. 



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