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STONES, BONES, AND WRECKS

18 Mummies From Peru and Egypt Come to the American Museum of Natural History

Jen Pinkowski
© 2015 THE FIELD MUSEUM, A115211D_015D, JOHN WEINSTEIN
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Opening March 20, "Mummies" lets visitors peer inside remains thousands of years old—all without disturbing or unwrapping them.

The oldest mummies in the world are found in Peru, dating back more than 7000 years; thousands of years later, the Egyptians began preserving their dead, too. Remains spanning millennia from both cultures will soon be on display in the traveling exhibit "Mummies," now in its first time on the East Coast. Left largely undisturbed in the collection of Chicago's Field Museum for more than a century, some of the mummies last made a public appearance at the Chicago world's fair in 1893, a.k.a. the World Columbian Exposition. People brought anthropological and natural history specimens from all over the world, and much of the assembled specimens became a core part of the Field Museum's collection.

Some were acquired in what was, at least at the time, considered legitimate archaeological investigation: For example, more than 100 pit tombs were excavated from northern Peru in the late 1800s by George Dorsey, a curator at the Field Museum, and some finds from those digs are in "Mummies." The Egyptian mummies generally don't have an origin more specific than "Egypt"—what's known as the provenance (or provenience). In a statement, the Field Museum explained why to mental_floss*:

There were no Egyptian mummies in the World's Fair (or at least, none that ended up in the Field Museum's collections). Most of the Egyptian mummies and coffins in the exhibit were acquired by the museum by purchase in an expedition in 1894 (the year after the World Columbian Exposition). There is also one Egyptian mummy in the show (111517, Minirdis) which The Field Museum received by gift from the Chicago History Museum in 1925 when the CHM divested itself of if its European, Indian, and Middle Eastern archaeological collections. On provenience: since we did not excavate the material ourselves, we do not have reliable provenience for most of it, but the majority of the Egyptian mummies in the show come from the Akhmin cemetery.

That's one of the reasons why revealing what's inside these ancient remains without destroying them in the process—as so many researchers (and party-goers) did in the past—is so important. Thanks to advances in imaging, scientists in recent years have been able to look within the coffins, wraps, and remains using CT scans and other tools, all while leaving the mummies intact. That's what you'll see in "Mummies." Mental_floss got an advanced look at these ancient peoples in the exhibit, which opens on Monday and runs through January 7, 2018.

Note that out of respect for the remains, we were not allowed to photograph any of the mummies, nor were any images of the mummy bundles found in Peru distributed by AMNH to the press. Some of those are the remains of young children. You'll have to visit to see them for yourself—and to appreciate the love and care that went into their preservation.

*Editor's note: This post has been updated with a statement from the Field Museum.  

© 2015 THE FIELD MUSEUM, A115211D_015D, JOHN WEINSTEIN

This intricately wrapped mummified baby crocodile was buried as an offering in an ancient Egyptian tomb.

© 2015 THE FIELD MUSEUM, A115212D_015D, JOHN WEINSTEIN

This gazelle was probably raised at a temple in order to be mummified, sold, and used as a burial offering.

©ANMH/C. CHESEK

Modern technologies have given researchers noninvasive methods of examining mummies, including computerized tomography (CT) scanners that take hundreds of x-rays with each rotation.

The oldest mummy in the exhibit was naturally mummified about 5500 years ago in Egypt; the country's dry climate preserved her without any help from humans. Though only about 34 years old when she died—roughly middle-aged at the time—she would've been "wracked by pain," as the signage explains: She had lost most of her teeth, and had several disabling diseases, arthritis, and hardened arteries. Though her remains, on display, are shrouded, at the exhibit you can take a look beneath the cloth—and the skin—using a digital touch interface of the scans the researchers made.   



© 2015 THE FIELD MUSEUM, A115214D_035B, JOHN WEINSTEIN

The gold-masked mummy of the exquisite "Gilded Lady," dating to Roman-era Egypt. See the next photo for the scan of her mummy—and what it revealed about her. 

© THE FIELD MUSEUM

The CT scan of the Gilded Lady showed that she was a woman in her 40s with curly hair and a slight overbite. She may have died of tuberculosis—a common and deadly ailment in Egypt. Want to see a hyper-realistic reconstruction of her by artist Elisabeth Daynes? It's on display in the exhibit, as are the mummy, digital scans, and reconstruction of a teenage boy.

©ANMH/R. MICKENS

Located on continents half a world from each other, Peru and Egypt share a dry desert climate in some regions, but their funerary practices were very different. In Peru the tradition goes back to the Chinchorro of the south, who 7000 years ago had a complex mummification process that included removing the skin for tanning then reattaching it, and covering the face with an unfired clay mask. In Peru, over the millennia there's a common thread that runs through various cultures: These mummifications were intimate affairs performed by family members for virtually all members of society. Contrast that with the more familiar funeral practices of Egypt, where people began intentionally mummifying the dead thousands of years later. Funerals were a booming business, and pharaohs and elites went all out with their burials, which were meant to prepare them for a well-equipped afterlife.

© 2015 THE FIELD MUSEUM, A115204D_012C, JOHN WEINSTEIN

The Chancay (1000–1400 CE) of Peru mummified their loves ones in a curled-up position and then placed stylized head sculptures atop their remains. Figurines were sometimes wrapped within the bundles, and their exteriors were often draped with fine fabrics that were never worn, as you can see in the next photo. 



© JEN PINKOWSKI

A reconstruction of a pit burial from the Chancay culture. These mummy bundles were added one by one to a family's tomb, which was carefully maintained. "Mummification was not something that was reserved for a specific segment of society. Almost everyone was treated similarly," says Field Museum researcher Ryan Williams. "The demographic profiles of the mummy population are very reflective of the demographic profiles of the living population."

There are several child mummies in the exhibit, reflecting a high child mortality rate; Williams says up to 30 percent of the mummies at some burial sites are children. In the exhibit are the remains of a young woman who had been mummified in a single bundle with two young children, presumably her own.

© 2015 THE FIELD MUSEUM, A115203D_002C, JOHN WEINSTEIN

This double-spouted jar has the face of a jaguar and was found with a burial from the Paracas culture (800–100 BCE). Ceramics were often buried with the mummified dead.

© 2015 THE FIELD MUSEUM, A115208D_018E, JOHN WEINSTEIN

These chicha pots from a thousand years ago were filled with corn beer and placed in family pit burials with mummy bundles of the Chancay culture. The figurines on the vessels hold out little cups as if in offering to the dead. The Chancay were known to replenish the food and drinks in the tombs. The dead were considered part of the larger community, and intermediaries between worlds.  

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