The British Museum’s new exhibition unwraps mummies as never before

The British Museum uses the absolute cutting edge of technology to probe the secrets of these ancient remains.
The cartonnage of Tamut, from about 900BC. This daughter of a priest is one of the stars of the Museum's new show. Trustees of the British Museum / May 2014
The cartonnage of Tamut, from about 900BC. This daughter of a priest is one of the stars of the Museum's new show. Trustees of the British Museum / May 2014

Footage shown in the UK last week of an Egyptian woman undergoing CT scanning in a British hospital provoked the host of a TV news quiz to joke that it would be used by right-wing politicians as “further evidence that foreigners are using up NHS resources”.

In fact, far from queue-jumping for health care, Tamut, the daughter of a priest who lived and died in the city of Thebes during the 22nd Dynasty, had waited almost 3,000 years for the diagnosis that she had been suffering from advanced atherosclerosis, and that cardiovascular disease was the most likely cause of her death.

Tamut was one of eight mummified individuals from Egypt and Sudan selected for detailed investigation using the latest CT scanning technology, carried out in collaboration with hospitals more accustomed to examining the living.

The result is the British Museum’s extraordinarily powerful new exhibition, Ancient Lives, New Discoveries, in which the deepest secrets of life, death and the embalmer’s art are laid bare by a process that strips away every layer of the eight mummies and yet reminds us that these were once people.

It’s easy to objectify mummies, to forget that within the familiar, decorative shell lie the remains of a human being, but less so when all is rendered transparent and a human face emerges from out of the gloom of the ancient past.

Mummies have been X-rayed before. But for the first time the thousands of two-dimensional “slices” captured by a CT scanner have been processed by “volume rendering” graphic software to build a three-dimensional image of the body that can be viewed from any angle, at any depth from the surface down.

The astonishing effect, captured in pin-sharp animations that either play in loops on screens alongside the dead, or which can be interactively controlled by visitors to the show, is to grant viewers the superpower of 3-D X-ray vision and the ability to peer inside and examine any part of the corpse they choose.

As a result, we learn that at least two of the mummies, including Tamut, suffered from advanced cardiovascular disease – evidenced by the plaque in their femoral arteries, which can be clearly seen.

Other secrets come to light – including, in Tamut’s case, the four wax figurines of the Sons of Horus placed in her chest cavity to protect her vital organs during the journey to the afterlife, the stone scarab placed upon her heart and the metal images of winged deities concealed under her wrappings.

Whereas the cases in which some of the mummies are entombed tell us much about the status, beliefs and, occasionally, even the names of the occupants, the scans reveal something of the daily reality of their lives. The large number of dental abscesses suffered by most, for example, tells us that many ancient Egyptians would have lived in great pain.

Other insights emphasise the humanity of the dead – such as the last meal clearly visible in the abdomen of a young man from 3500BC, recovered from a cemetery at Gebelein in Upper Egypt in the 1890s.

In another, most pitifully, we see the barely erupted milk teeth of a 2-year-old child from the Roman period, the son of a wealthy family. His elaborately crafted and painted cartonnage, complete with gilded mask, puts on a brave face, but beneath the plaster and bandages it is desperately moving to find the sad, twisted remains of an all-too-human child.

The scans have also revealed more about the embalmer’s art – and the fact that practitioners were not infallible. In one mummy, we see that two wooden poles were inserted to support the head, apparently after the accidental decapitation of the subject during the embalming process. In another, an instrument used to extract the brain through the nasal cavity was lost inside the skull, where it remains to this day, alongside portions of the grey matter the embalmer failed to retrieve.

In fact, such is the clarity and precision of the scanning process that museum staff have been able to use 3-D printers to create an exact replica of this instrument, as well as copies of amulets left inside the dead – and all, of course, without touching or disturbing the ­originals.

In 19th-century Europe, the public unwrapping of mummies was a popular entertainment. Today, of course, making such an exhibition of the dead is frowned upon. For its part, the British Museum hasn’t physically unwrapped a mummy for 200 years – partly because “it is a very destructive process”, says John Taylor, lead curator for the exhibition, “and you destroy the evidence that you want to understand”.

But there is another reason, important to modern sensibilities – that “it is, of course, a more respectful way of treating the bodies as individuals”.

Here the museum finds itself in a kind of moral – or possibly philosophical – quandary. From the point of view of respect, is there really any difference between physically unwrapping a mummy and using modern technology to achieve the same result, albeit non-invasively?

Dr Daniel Antoine, the museum’s curator of physical anthropology, certainly believes there is and says that he and his colleagues never lose sight of the humanity of their 120 mummies, part of a group of 6,000 human remains in the collection, including 2,000 specimens from the Nile Valley alone.

“Part of my role is to make sure that this never happens,” he says, “to always remind my colleagues never to refer to them as objects, but always as human remains. Even when we talk about them, whether it’s in a meeting, in public or in private, it should always be appropriately.”

Some of the subtleties of the care and respect exercised by the curators might be lost on the average visitor to the exhibition, but they are there nevertheless, at work behind the scenes and in the presentation of the remains.

For the display of the two poignant child mummies, says Antoine, they created “a more enclosed area, creating a more austere and private space”.

In the case of a naturally mummified Christian woman, buried near the fourth cataract of the Nile some time in the first century AD and rescued by the Sudan Archaeological Research Society in 2004, before the area was flooded by the construction of the Merowe dam, “the light levels are slightly lower than for the other mummies because some of her skin is visible”.

Aspiring to achieve even a degree of privacy for the mummies in an exhibition that uses technology to strip away every shred of cover and which will be visited by thousands might seem like a purely academic gesture, but Antoine believes it is always necessary to balance the demands of the public and research with respect for the dead.

“It always has to be carefully balanced, with dialogue throughout, but human remains provide a unique insight into past cultures and societies and we can learn a lot, not only about the cultural aspects but also about the evolution of human biology.”

It is Antoine’s hope that the exhibition will make visitors think about the people behind the masks of the mummies – and about their own mortality. This is partly why the exhibition ends not with a spectacular bang, but with the thoughtful projection of three of the faces uncovered by the 3-D scanning, “to remind us all that these are human beings”, he says.

“We wanted to make sure that as you left you had the opportunity to discover the face of somebody who lived several thousand years ago and maybe to appreciate the antiquity of humanity and that things haven’t changed all that much.”

And there’s another purpose to the exhibition’s dignified closing scene, which unwittingly draws visitors into a time-spanning collaboration with the three individuals whose names are known.

For the ancient Egyptians it was important to know that after they died the living would speak their names, because that would bring them back to life in the afterworld. “That’s what we’ve tried to replicate in the last room,” says Antoine. “By showing the faces and having the names quoted on the wall, we are trying to encourage people to pronounce their names.”

Perhaps Tamut, the priest’s daughter, Tjayasetimu, a young temple singer, and Padiamenet, a temple door keeper, would have willingly traded the indignities of 21st-century exposure for the chance to be spoken of once again in death.

Ancient Lives, New Discoveries is at the British Museum, London, until November 30.

Jonathan Gornall is a regular contributor to The National.

Published: May 29, 2014 04:00 AM


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