A new look at an old mummy
Where does one start putting back together a 4,000-year-old mummy whose head has fallen off and whose bones aren’t where they are supposed to be?
It turns out at Emory University Hospital.
When conservators at Emory’s Carlos Museum began restoration on the oldest mummy in North America, now on display at the Carlos, they had many unanswered questions, according to lead conservator Renee Stein. Where were the bones located? What did they reveal about the condition of the person’s health? Was the mummy male or female? What was the cause of death?
The Carlos enlisted Emory radiologist William Torres to help answer those questions about the mummy, which had lain in storage in the museum’s collection since 1921. Torres used CT imaging to view the bones and their locations and prepared a 3D reconstruction that allowed the mummy to be rotated and viewed in a variety of positions. These techniques allowed the conservation team to see what was underneath the wrappings without having to disturb the fragile linens from antiquity.
Torres, who serves on the board of the Carlos and is an art collector, previously had examined a cache of mummies for an earlier Carlos exhibit that included Pharaoh Ramesses I. (Emory returned the pharaoh’s mummy to Egypt in 2002 as a gesture of good will.) Unlike those mummies, which dated from the Middle Kingdom, the Old Kingdom example was in “rather bad condition,” Torres says. “For one thing, the vertebral bones were in the wrong place, and the ribs were where the pelvis was supposed to be.”
The CT in combination with x-rays showed that all the bones were well-mineralized. The person had experienced no head trauma, and most likely, was male, with a large and wide skull and a brow ridge (usually lacking in women).
From the physical evidence, Emory anthropologist George Armelagos surmised that this man had enjoyed good health with access to a good diet and social advantages. The mummy’s brain remains intact, with a walnut texture these 4,000 years later, and he still retains some teeth that are in amazingly good shape.
Because the mummy was buried at a holy site in Abydos, Egypt, he was likely a member of the elite class and a person of means, says Peter Lacovara, the Carlos’ curator of ancient Egyptian, Nubian, and Near Eastern art. As further evidence, the base of the coffin that he rests on is made of a single piece of wood—“the cedars of Lebanon,” says Lacovara—and would have been covered by a limestone sarcophagus, expenses that no ordinary Egyptian could afford.
Now through December, the mummy is the centerpiece of an exhibition at the Carlos, “Life and Death in the Pyramid Age: the Emory Old Kingdom Mummy.” With a new jaw and new digits to replace missing bones from the hands and feet, he lies on his right side, as if asleep. With a reattached head supported by a headrest, he faces east to the rising sun in his afterlife. —Rhonda Mullen