Mummies of the World exhibition opens in Philadelphia

mummies, mummy
Mummies are endlessly fascinating. To see a centuries-old body so well preserved brings the past vividly to life. While Egyptian mummies get most of the press, bodies in many regions were mummified by natural processes after being deposited in peat bogs or very dry caves.

Mummies of the World is a state-of-the-art exhibition bringing together 150 mummies and related artifacts. It opened last weekend at the Franklin Institute in Philadelphia after successful runs in L.A. and Milwaukee. Visitors will see mummified people and animals from all over the world and learn how they came to be so well preserved.

Besides the required collection of ancient Egyptians, there are numerous mummies from other regions, such as this prehistoric man from the Atacama Desert in Chile.

%Gallery-126801%From South America there’s the famous Detmold child from Peru, dated to 4504-4457 B.C., more than 3,000 years before the birth of King Tutankhamen. This ten-month-old kid was naturally preserved by the incredibly dry climate of the Peruvian desert. There’s also a tattooed woman from Chile dating to sometime before 1400 AD who also dried out in a desert.

From Germany there’s Baron von Holz, who died in the 17th century and was preserved in the family crypt. Then there’s the Orlovits family: Michael, Veronica, and their baby Johannes. They were discovered in a forgotten crypt in Vac, Hungary, in 1994, where they had been buried in the early nineteenth century. The cool, dry conditions of the crypt and the pine wood used in their caskets helped preserve them.

There are animal mummies too. There’s a mummified cat from the Ptolemaic Period (305-30 BC), the same time in Egypt that the mummy portraits started coming into fashion. There are several naturally preserved mummies such as frogs, a lizard, a hyena, and even a howler monkey that dried out in desert conditions and are on display.

Several interactive exhibits give visitors a chance to see where mummies come from, how they were preserved naturally or artificially, and what they feel like. Visitors can even match DNA samples to see which mummies are related.

Mummies of the World runs until 23 October 2011.

[All photos courtesy American Exhibitions, Inc.]

Ancient faces: the Fayum mummy portraits of Egypt

Fayum mummy portraitsThe pyramids, Tutankhamen’s gold, the massive temples of Luxor and Karnak. . .the civilization of ancient Egypt has left us an incredible legacy, yet of all of these impressive monuments and treasures none has a more personal effect on the viewer than the Fayum mummy portraits.

During the Graeco-Roman period, after Egypt had fallen first to Alexander the Great and then to the Romans, the old traditions continued. Temples were still built, priests still wrote in hieroglyphics, and the wealthy were still mummified in order to guarantee their place in the afterlife.

The new rulers of Egypt took on some local customs. They often chose to be mummified in the Egyptian fashion, but added the touch of putting a portrait of the deceased over the wrappings covering the face. Painted on thin slats of wood, they were part of a trend called panel painting, considered by Classical writers to be one of the highest forms of art.

Panel paintings were hung in houses and public buildings all over the Greek and Roman world. Two thousand years of damp, mold, and fire destroyed all of them except those buried in the preserving sands of Egypt, so these mummy portraits give us a look at what would otherwise be a lost art. Panel painting was hugely popular in its day and later influenced the Coptic and Byzantine icons of the Middle Ages.

Looking at a mummy portrait brings you face to face with a real person from the past, like this image of a priest courtesy user Eloquence via Wikimedia Commons. Painted around 140-160 AD, it’s realistic enough that we’d know him if he passed us on the street. The portraits vary in quality, but each gives us an individualistic look at a man or woman or child, often with fascinating details like jewelry or hairstyles.

%Gallery-126247%Mummy portraits appeared around the first century BC and continued in fashion for about 300 years. Many were found in the Fayum, an oasis west of modern Cairo that was a popular place to be buried, but examples have been found all over Egypt.

The Museo Arqueológico Nacional in Madrid has a display of 13 of the best mummy portraits showing until July 24. Most of the museum has been closed for more than two years for refurbishment so it’s nice that something is going on there. There’s also the exhibit Tesoros del Museo Arqueológico Nacional, a “greatest hits” collection like the British Museum did while it was remodeling.

If you aren’t going to Madrid this summer (don’t–the autumn or spring are better with fewer tourists and milder weather) there are plenty of other places to see mummy portraits. In London, The Petrie Museum of Egyptian Archaeology and the British Museum have two of the largest collections in the world, although many of the best examples from the British Museum are in Madrid at the moment. In New York there’s the Met, in Edinburgh the National Museum of Scotland, in Paris the Louvre, in Vienna the Kunsthistorisches Museum, and in Amsterdam the Allard Pierson Museum. And of course there’s the Museum of Egyptian Antiquities in Cairo!

Rioters destroy two mummies in Egyptian Museum in Cairo

Egypt, egypt, mummy
Rioters broke into Cairo’s famous Egyptian Museum yesterday and destroyed two mummies, Reuters reports.

The head of Egypt’s Supreme Council of Antiquities, Zahi Hawass, got on state television to say that a crowd tried to break into the museum but were fought off by tourist police and regular citizens. While the battle went in front of the entrances, some other rioters broke in through the roof and destroyed the mummies. The ticket office was also ransacked.

It’s unclear at this stage if anything was stolen or if this was a simple act of vandalism. Egyptian fundamentalists have long objected to displays of mummies and ancient religious idols, so the attack may have had a religious motivation. The two mummies were not identified but were referred to as belonging to the Pharaonic period, as opposed to later Greco-Roman mummies.

The museum stands next to the headquarters of Egypt’s ruling National Democratic Party, which the rioters had set on fire. If I remember correctly, there’s a large open space between the two buildings and so there is little danger of the fire spreading.

[Photo courtesy user Zubro via Wikimedia Commons. This is in the Louvre and is not one of the mummies that was destroyed. You get 100 Archaeology Points if you can tell me another reason this couldn’t be the mummy that was destroyed.]

Egypt changes stance: King Tut’s tomb will stay open (for now)

Egypt, egypt
The famous tomb of King Tutankhamun in Egypt will remain open for the time being, the chief of Egypt’s Supreme Council of Antiquities Zahi Hawass announced.

While earlier this week he stated that it and two other tombs in the Valley of the Kings near Luxor would close by the end of the year, now he’s saying that they’ll close at some undetermined time in the future.

Egypt plans to build a Valley of the Replicas to show off exact duplicates of King Tut’s tomb and those of Seti I and Queen Nefertari. These and other tombs are suffering damage due to the large numbers of people passing through. The extra humidity from their breath is causing mold to grow and is damaging the ancient paintings that adorn the walls. The number of visitors to Tutankhamun’s tomb has already been limited to 1,000 a day, down from a peak of 6,000 a day.

Once the Valley of the Replicas is open, and there’s no set date for that yet, King Tut’s tomb will close to everyone except those paying an extra fee that will probably run into the thousands of dollars. The pharaoh’s mummy will remain in its tomb.

[Photo courtesy user Kounosu via Wikimedia Commons]

Major new exhibition at British Museum: Egyptian Book of the Dead


For four thousand years it was the cornerstone of Egyptian religion. It started as a few prayers said in prehistoric times before a body was laid to rest in the desert next to the Nile. As the civilization in Egypt grew the prayers and spells became more elaborate, as did other rites for the dead. They were written inside pyramids and other tombs. Eventually the various rituals and spells were gathered together to create what we call the Book of the Dead. It’s made up of numerous chapters in no set order. Individual chapters or groups of chapters were written on tombs, sarcophagi, and rolls of papyrus. The book survived, with various changes and variations that Egyptologists are still puzzling out, until the Christian era.

One of the foremost institutions for collecting and studying the Book of the Dead is the British Museum in London. Now the museum is opening up its archives for an exhibition of its amazing collection of this esoteric masterpiece. Journey through the afterlife: ancient Egyptian Book of the Dead features items rarely if ever seen by the public, including the Greenfield Papyrus, the longest scroll of the Book of the Dead at 37 meters. Other items like sarcophagi and tomb figurines will give a complete view of the ancient Egyptian cult of the dead.

The papyri are elaborately illustrated with scenes of the gods and the toils a spirit must go through in the afterlife. In the above scene Anubis leads Hunefer, a dead scribe, to a scale, where his heart will be weighed against the feather of truth. A wicked heart will be heavier than the feather and the monster Ammut, crouching below the scale, will eat it. This image is from the Hunefer Papyrus and will also be on display at the exhibition.

For a taste of what you’ll see, check out the online scan of the complete Papyrus of Ani.

Journey through the afterlife: ancient Egyptian Book of the Dead runs from 4 November 2010 to 6 March 2011.

[Photo courtesy Jon Bodsworth via Wikimedia Commons]