Wrapped! Search for the Essential Mummy

Article excerpt

MUSEUM VISITORS often leave an exhibition of Egyptian artifacts with the impression that mummies are all the same and that they probably were kings or princes during their lives. In reality, mummies are individuals; they vary in terms of their manner of preparation, the decoration of their sarcophagi, and the region in which they lived--and, of course, before they were mummies, they were living 'people, of either sex, belonging to different classes, working in a variety of occupations, who died of as many causes as people do today. Underneath their ancient linen wrappings lies a multitude of mysteries often too great for scientists and researchers to uncover. Nevertheless, since their first discovery by Western cultures, seekers across the centuries have been trying to unwrap the secrets of mummies.

"Wrapped! Search for the Essential Mummy" will take museumgoers several steps closer on this quest. The exhibition is designed to transport onlookers back to the Egyptian tombs of Akhmim and the funerary tables and labs of ancient mortuaries; through the discovery of mummies by Western explorers and the ensuing "unrolling" soirees of the 19th century; to current-day mummy research, including reconstruction of mummies' facial features in sculptural busts and digitizing mummies' body cavities using scanning technology from radiology labs. The exhibit also will reunite a father and son pair of mummies for the first time in North American history.

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The cliffs of Akhmim, Egypt, and its sprawling cemetery are 300 miles south of Cairo. In 1884, mummies were pulled from their ancient tombs by the hundreds. Among those buried in the loose limestone was Pahat, who lived a full life as a priest of the temple cult of Min. Pahat, who died of natural causes, was mummified 2,300 years ago with the best funerary methods and craftsmanship of his era. At the turn of the 20th century, he was excavated, removed from his resting place, and eventually sold to Zenas Crane in Pittsfield, Mass., for the now-paltry sum of $300. Crane donated Pahat to Berkshire Museum, which the philanthropist founded in 1903, where the prized mummy has remained on display to this day.

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In 2007, a museum team led by Jonathan Elias of the Akhmim Mummy Studies Consortium of Harrisburg, Pa., conducted extensive research on Pahat. Following the CT scanning of the mummy, follow-up research revealed that a second mummy, 75 miles away in the collection of The Frances Lehman Loeb Art Center at Vassar College, Poughkeepsie, N.Y., was eerily similar. This mummy, named Shepen-Min, now is recognized as being Pahat's son. When Pahat and his son are brought together for "Wrapped!", it will be a historic occasion: an ancient Egyptian family reunion occurring after more than two millennia.

Onlookers will be able to see firsthand the many similarities between the sarcophagi and mummies as the two rest side-by-side. They will be joined by a third slightly earlier mummy of an elder lady, Pesed--a daughter of Nes-hor (prophet of the eight gods associated with Min). American missionaries working near Akhmim at the time of discovery brought her to Westminster College in western Pennsylvania in 1885.

On display will be forensic sculptures of Pahat, Shep-en-Min, and Pesed, all based on CT scan data, and those of other mummies excavated in their town and its surrounding region. The busts reveal what these people looked like before mummification dried their bodies in preparation for burial and transition to the ancient Egyptian afterlife. …