Historical Reminiscing with Robert B. Hitchings
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When an Egyptian Mummy Came to Norfolk, Virginia, in 1824

The cold days in January in the New Year of 1824 brought to the Borough of Norfolk a big surprise, a real live mummy case. From January 3 through January 7, 1824, the people of Norfolk for the first time saw an Egyptian mummy case, without the mummy, and reported January 5, 1824, in the Norfolk Beacon. It was a rare object older than Christ.

In 1824 the Boston Medical College had begun to exhibit for Massachusetts General Hospital a rare mummy case that was brightly colored. The case was listed as 3,000 years old and originated in the ancient land of Thebes, Egypt, the home of the Pharohs. The price to see this extraordinary exhibit at the Brick House on Main and Talbot Streets was only 25 cents; children were half price. The exhibit was for one week only and the newspapers promoted this exhibit. Looking at the ad and the picture of the mummy case in the 1824 newspapers, one could see the finely drawn details. The exhibit of the mummy case was presented around the country by Mr. Van Lennep & Company for the new Natural History Museum in Boston.

The huge mummy case was a big sensation here in the center of our borough. Together with its double sarcophagus or coffin curiously ornamented with bright colors and unusual hieroglyphics, visitors could make out a tutelary hawk and a rather large black eye with a tear, not to mention a baboon, wolf and heads of dogs and jackals and the bodies of men. People saw many ancient Egyptian symbols of death and rebirth painted on this mummy case. The word hieroglyph literally means “sacred carvings”. Inside the coffin were several clay tablets with more hieroglyphics. It was the bright colors of the mummy case that brought out the crowds.

Unfortunatley, deciphering the old text was very difficult and in the early stages. However, in 1822 a young Frenchman, Jean Francis Champollion, a noted Egyptologist who studied the ancient Rosetta stone was able to transcribe and decipher these hieroglyphics.

The citizens of Norfolk had never seen anything quite like this before. It was definitely a different exhibit for the Borough of Norfolk to exhibit. Some individuals found it scary and stayed away, while others enjoyed it. After the exhibit left Norfolk, the newspapers stated that the mummy case had been an extraordinary exhibit on a cold week in the new year of January 1824.

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Robert B. Hitchings is a seventh generation Norfolk resident, graduating with an Associate's Degree in Biology from Old Dominion University and BA in history from Virginia Wesleyan University. During his studies he was awarded a scholarship at Emmanuel College, Cambridge, England, and he was an exchange student at Brooks-Westminster College, Oxford, England. From 1999-2014 he worked as head of the Sargeant Memorial History Room at Norfolk Public Library, and since then has headed the Wallace History Room at Chesapeake Public Library. He is also the President of the Norfolk County Historical Society, and for six years was a columnist for The Virginian-Pilot. Robert may be reached at nchs.wallaceroom@gmail.com