Welcome to the Mummy Blog!

Why mummies? What can we learn about ancient people from well-preserved human remains? Why should we care? Come explore the world of mummies and all their spin-offs (museum exhibits, movies, books....)

Thursday, March 24, 2016

Animal Mummies

People around the world revered animals, as manifestations of their gods, as votive objects, and as beloved pets. In ancient Egypt, embalmers treated some animals, like the Apis bull, with as much care as many humans. Here's one at the Smithsonian Institution:

Cat  mummies abound, as do ibises (sacred offerings to the god Thoth).

But in Peru, some animals were buried as pets, like this naturally dessicated puma with claws that were unworn. It was buried with jewelry and a special mantle:

Other animal mummies are just accidents of nature in a dry climate, such as this shriveled-up iguana I recently saw in the Galapagos:

My new favorite animal (not a mummy, just a burial) is a bobcat kitten found in Illinois. Buried with a necklace, it was clearly a valued pet until it died. Here's a reconstruction by Ken Farnsworth:

Sunday, March 13, 2016

Mummies of the World class, Part II

Over the past couple of weeks, we have examined "spontaneous mummies," such as the Italian Iceman, and "prepared mummies," such as Lady Dai, the Chinese aristocrat, and a plethora of Egyptian mummies, prepared because their people believed a preserved body was essential for a person to have an afterlife. When the class is over, I'll post some short entries on specific mummies, but for now here is a list of mummy videos, websites, and books for further exploration:


David Hunt on boy in iron coffin (video!)


Smithsonian on Egyptian mummification



You tube video with Bob Brier: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pwJ7391G-1s

·         Aidan and Eve Cockburn, Mummies, Disease and Ancient Cultures (Cambridge University Press 1980)

·         Christine El Mahdy, Mummies, Myth and Magic (Thames and Hudson 1989)

  •       Stuart Fleming et al., The Egyptian Mummy: Secrets and Science (University Museum, Philadelphia, 1980)
·         S. Ikram and A. Dodson, The Mummy in Ancient Egypt: Equipping the Dead for Eternity (Thames and Hudson, 1998)

·         Sarah Wisseman, The Virtual Mummy (University of Illinois Press, 2003)

Wednesday, February 24, 2016

Mummies of the World Part I

This week we began our course with a summary of what a mummy is (a spontaneous or deliberately preserved body, human or animal) and showed examples of Greenland mummies, Bog Bodies, the Austrian Italian Iceman, and Chinese Red-haired mummies. Here are some of the stars of our class:

A 5,000 BC naturally preserved Egyptian mummy

A freeze-dried baby boy from Greenland

A western European bog body

The Iceman, the most analyzed dead body in the history of man. Star of a new Nova special (aired last week on PBS in Illinois). The "Iceman Reborn" tells the story of how a 3-D print of the 5,300 year old mummy was made and recent studies of its DNA: http://www.pbs.org/show/nova/
**See also the Nova link to "10 Ways to Make a Mummy" http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/nova/ancient/10-ways-mummy.html
We will cover nearly all of these mummies in class.

A Chinese red-haired mummy with genetic connections to Europe

Stay tuned!

Thursday, February 11, 2016

Osher Lifelong Learning class on mummies begins February 23

This blog will serve as a class website for an OLLI class, "You can take it with you: Mummies of the World" Feb 23-March 15, 2016. I will post key topics and images as the class progresses. Here is the syllabus:

Summary: Some people believe that in order to have an afterlife, the body must be preserved and clothes, tools, jewelry, pets, and food must accompany the human body into its tomb. Others believe preserved bodies allow ancestors to exert a benevolent influence on their descendants. This four-week class will explore mummies from Egypt, South America, the Canary Islands, Papua New Guinea, and China. The materials and methods used on mummies illustrate religious beliefs, burial rituals, concepts of good and evil, and social status. The human bodies inside, revealed by medical imaging and chemical analysis, teach us about ancient health and disease, diet, and ancestry.

Why study mummies? Mummies can teach us about human beings and how they lived in different times and places. Study of the physical body reveals health, disease, diet, occupations, and much more. Burial context, from tomb architecture to artifacts surrounding the dead person, illustrate beliefs, burial rituals, art, and technology. Multiple disciplines (e.g. anthropology, medicine, chemistry, biology, art history) are used to study mummies.

What is a mummy? A. An accidentally preserved “spontaneous” mummy, or B. a deliberately prepared body, human or animal. Body treatments include separating the bones, removing internal organs, defleshing, embalming, reconstructing the body or face out of mineral and plant materials, and decoration.

·         We can learn much more about an ancient person if he or she is preserved in context.
·         Climate is crucial for preservation: dry and hot or dry and cold are the best environments. Exceptions: slightly acidic bogs, where oxygen is excluded.
·         Non-destructive techniques such as X-ray radiography and CT scanning are preferable to autopsies (ancient mummies are irreplaceable artifacts).
·         New dating and DNA techniques requiring ever smaller samples continue to provide new information on old mummies.
·         For prehistoric mummies, there are limits in what we can know about why mummies were prepared (beliefs in an afterlife, ancestor worship, fertility and regeneration)

Class organization (subject to change):
Week 1: Introduction, definitions, accidental or “spontaneous” mummies (Egyptian, European bog bodies, Otzi the Iceman, Chinese red-haired mummies)
Week 2: The Iron Coffin Boy. Prepared mummies: “Lady Dai” Chinese mummy, Egyptian beliefs and embalming, Manchester mummy project.
Week 3: Advances in radiology and CT scanning. Case studies: Brooklyn, Edinburgh, Chicago, Spurlock Museum mummies.

Week 4: Animal mummies. Human case studies: Canary Islands, Peruvian Ice Maidens, Ancestor worship in Papua New Guinea, Chinchorro mummies. Medical and dental studies, DNA advances. Bob Brier’s “Thorough Modern Mummy.”

Friday, February 5, 2016

Complete Bibliography on the University of Ilinois Mummy at the Spurlock Museum

Sarah U. Wisseman and David R. Hunt, "Rescanned: new Results from a Child Mummy at the University of Illinois," Yearbook of Mummy Studies, Vol. 2, pp. 87-94, 14 figs., March 2014 © 2014 by Verlag Dr. Friedrich Pfeil, M√ľnchen, Germany – ISBN 978-3-89937-163-5

Sarah Wisseman, The Virtual Mummy (University of Illinois Press. 2003)
Sarah Wisseman, "Preserved for the Afterlife," Nature 413, 783-784 (25 October 2001)

 Karen Wright, "Tales from the Crypt," Discover (July 1991) pp. 54-58

Sarah Wisseman, Linda Klepinger, Richard Keen, Mastura Raheel, and Joseph Barkmeier, "Interdisciplinary Analysis of a Roman Period Egyptian Mummy," Archaeometry `90 (Basel 1990) pp. 345-353

Mark Proefke, Kenneth Rinehart, Mastura Raheel, Stanley Ambrose, and Sarah Wisseman, "Probing the Mysteries of Ancient Egypt...," Analytical Chemistry 64 (2) Jan. 15 1992, pp. 105A-111A

Raymond Evenhouse and Tony Stefanic, "Image Processing and Solid Modeling Recapture a Mummy's Face," Advanced Imaging (October 1992) pp.40-43.

Mark Proefke and Kenneth Rinehart, "Analysis of an Egyptian Mummy Resin by Mass Spectrometry," Journal of the American Mass Spectrometry Society 3 1992, pp. 582-589.

Sarah Wisseman, "Imaging the Past...,"in Ancient Technologies and Archaeological Materials, Sarah Wisseman and Wendell Williams, eds., (Gordon and Breach Science Publishers 1994), pp. 217-234

Barbara Bohen, "Collaborative Investigation of the University of Illinois Egypto-Roman Mummy," Proceedings of the I World Congress on Mummy Studies (1997) pp. 515-522.

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

New Tricks from an Old Mummy

The University of Illinois Roman-period Egyptian mummy at the Spurlock Museum has undergone two sets of CT scans twenty years apart. In 1990, an interdisciplinary team was convened to investigate the mummy before it went on display. Since autopsy was not permitted, we concentrated on non-destructive imaging supplemented by materials analyses of tiny bits of hardened resin, cloth, and insects from the damaged lower end of the mummy.

The initial results showed that the mummy was a child (because of dental development and open growth plates) with a broken head and a collapsed chest. CT images showed some kind of packing material (cloth or mud?) around the limbs and a wooden, so-called "stiffening" board under the body inside the linen wrappings. The insects turned out to be flesh-eating beetles, implying that the child’s body was partially decayed before it was wrapped up.
The brain, heart, and lungs appeared to be still in place inside the mummy, but as our consulting radiologist Dr. Joe Barkmeier at Carle Foundation Hospital in Urbana, IL, commented, “they’re all dried up and moved around.” 

Lack of evisceration and a concentration on the exterior decoration instead of tissue preservation are features of many Roman period mummies. So is the wooden board underneath the body, inside the wrappings. Sex could not be determined because the pelvic region was obscured by layers of tissues and wrappings and sexing a young child based upon skeletal remains alone is difficult in the best of circumstances.

In 2011, we decided to re-scan the mummy with vastly improved imaging technology and computer software. David Hunt, Physical Anthropology Collections Manager at the Smithsonian’s NMNH, was a consultant on the new project.

Internal organs, packing, and bone fractures are much more visible from the new CT scans. Dr. Hunt was able to age the mummy child more precisely to about 8.5 years at the time of death by identifying key molars and tooth positions in the jaw. 
However, the measurements of the long bones of the legs came up a bit short, suggesting that the child suffered a period of malnutrition. Unfortunately, sex is still unknown because the pelvis is collapsed and the similar densities of bone, tissue, and wrappings make accurate observations problematic.

In the thoracic cavity, desiccated organs lie up against the spine, which shows signs of compression fractures (probably post-mortem). The occipital fracture is more severe than we originally thought, and a piece of the skull was pushed inside the cranial cavity. Some brain tissue is clearly visible, but it is possible that the embalmers attempted to take out the brain through the back of the head instead of through the sinus at the back of the nose.

New images show that the embalmers used wads of cloth rather than mud or plant material to pad the thin little body and make it appear more life-like. A recent pigment analysis by the Getty Conservation Institute confirms that the red colorant on the stucco surface is lead oxide, or minium, from Rio Tinto, Spain, and that it matches that of nine other “red shroud,” Roman-period mummies published the new book Herakleides:A Portrait Mummy from Roman Egypt by Lorelei Corcoran and Marie Svoboda. This finding confirms our conclusion that the Spurlock mummy child came from a well-to-do family in Roman Egypt that could afford expensive ingredients such as the red pigment and gold leaf seen on the mummy wrappings.

At Dr. Hunt’s request, Joe Mullins of the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children used the new CT scans to digitally reconstruct the child’s head and face. The result shows that the mummy child was of West Asian or Mediterranean heritage, just as one might expect from the mixed population living in the Fayum region of Egypt at that time.

This mummy is also the star of a mystery, Bound for Eternity, by Sarah Wisseman.

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Meet Lazarus, the Mummy Who Will Never Die

My husband nicknamed our local Egyptian mummy "Lazarus" because it keeps coming back to haunt me. Twenty years ago, I led a team at the University of Illinois in a largely non-destructive examination of a Roman-period Egyptian mummy. We X-rayed it, CT scanned it, studied snips and bits from its deteriorated lower end, and wrote it all up for an exhibit at the World Heritage, now the Spurlock, Museum on the Urbana-Champaign campus. Results: the mummy is a child from a well-to-do family living in the Fayum oasis district of Egypt. He (or she) had a broken head and a collapsed chest, but these injuries could have been from mishandling after death. Images showed packing material (cloth or mud?) around the limbs, and a wooden "stiffening" board under the body inside the linen and ramie wrappings.

In March 2011, we re-CT scanned the mummy at the same hospital, Carle Foundation Hospital in Urbana, IL, to see if modern imaging technology could answer lingering questions about the mummy child's sex, cause of death, and the packing around its body. A DNA test from a foot bone is in progress, but the result may not tell us whether the mummy was a boy or a girl unless we are awfully lucky (ancient DNA samples tend to be contaminated). Still, we have exciting new images of the mummy's insides to show, and some new information about the condition of the body.

All will be revealed at a symposium, "The Return of the Mummy," on Wednesday, November 2, 2011, at the Spurlock Museum auditorium. A panel of experts including an archaeologist, a physical anthropologist, two Egyptologists, and two physicians will discuss the latest results on our mummy and how this mummy study compares to others conducted at other universities. Time: 4 pm, free admission. Address:  600 S. Gregory St., Urbana, IL