Centred around an early suite of poems by the little-known Sade scholar and fellow traveller of Surrealism, Maurice Heine (1884–1940), this paper reveals the impact on artists (including Georges Braque) and poets of a series of spectacular exhibitions of Coptic ‘mummies’ in Paris. An account of Albert Gayet’s Antinoë excavations and exhibitions at the Musée Guimet is constructed, and this is used to explore the cultural meanings of the archaeological museum around 1900. The paper is a contribution to the study of a particular form of Orientalism, as well as an exploration of late Symbolism, one cultural territory out of which the Surrealist movement emerged. It argues that fascination with eroticised death and decay led, in Heine’s case, to an exploration of the powers and limitations of poetic language. Heine’s work is contrasted with more redemptive aesthetic representations of death in Nerval and Holbein, as interpreted by Julia Kristeva. It is suggested that Heine’s exhaustion of language in the evocation of death, and his almost political interrogation of the museum, make sense of his later contributions to Surrealism through his study of Sade.