Conservators at Chicago’s Field Museum opened the sarcophagus of a 2,500-year-old Egyptian mummy on Friday. Excavated from the Akhmim cemetery on the east bank of the Nile about 130 miles north of Luxor in Upper Egypt, the mummy has been in the museum’s collection since 1925 when they got it from the Chicago Historical Society. Due to its fragility, the sarcophagus hadn’t been opened. It’s one of 30 complete mummies in the Field Museum collection (the oldest collection in the museum) so for decades there was no compelling reason to interfere with mummy #11517.
Now there is a compelling reason: a new exhibition, Mummies: Images of the Afterlife, which will take 20 of the mummies from the Field’s vaults on a traveling tour of select U.S. museums. In anticipation of the exhibition, researchers have been using the latest technology — CT scans, 3D imaging, stable isotope testing, DNA analysis — to find out all they can about the mummies, their history, burial rituals and current condition. To ensure they can safely travel, any urgent conservation issues need to be addressed.
CT scans done with a mobile medical scanner in 2011 revealed that mummy #11517 was a boy of about 14 years of age when he died. He was properly nourished, seemingly healthy with no injuries or disease that could be detected. An inscription on his coffin identifies the youth as Minirdis, son of Inaros, a priest of fertility god Min. As a stolist priest, Inaros was responsible for the ritual washing and dressing of Min’s statue. The position was hereditary, so if Minirdis had lived, he would have gotten the job after his father died.
Scans also revealed that the mummy and wrappings signficant condition problems. Both feet are detached from the legs. The beautiful gold-painted cartonnage mask has a large hole in the face. The shroud underneath the mask was pulled to one side, dragging the cartonnage chest piece under the mummy’s back making it dangerous to move. The shroud and linen wrappings are brittle. They’ve split open at the feet, exposing the toes. Conservators want to close the holes in the wrappings and face mask as much as possible. They also want to reattach the feet and stabilize the sarcophagus and mummy.
On Friday, the conservation team at the Field Museum lifted the coffin lid using custom-designed clamps as a cradle. Being careful not to damage the shifted cartonnage collar, they were able to raise the mummy out of the sarcophagus. The CT scans didn’t eliminate all surprises. Painted in gold on the inside bottom of the coffin was a drawing of the Goddess Nut nobody knew was there.
The exhibition debuts next year at the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County. It takes a combined approach of high tech and traditional display. Accompanying the mummies are exhibited in century-old display cases, there are touch table interactive displays showing multi-layer segmented scans of the mummies that visitors can unwrap at their own pace, video projections, 3D printed casts of bones and figurines, and the hyperrealist sculpture reconstructions of Elisabeth Daynès. The tech isn’t glaring or obnoxious, though. The environment is kept deliberately quiet, in sound and sight, to ensure the space has a feeling of reverence for the dead rather than sensationalizing them.