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....)

Saturday, June 18, 2011


There is quite a lot to consider when you put a human mummy on display. Who was the person who is now mummified, and did he or she believe in an afterlife? Surely any concept of an afterlife does not include being in a public museum case! Is the body naked (bare bones, as in unclothed and skeletonized, or just unwrapped)? What culture does it belong to, and what does having the mummy on display teach us about ancient belief systems, health, and disease?

Last week I had the great good fortune to attend the 7th World Congress on Mummy Studies in San Diego. Aside from the fact that I am apparently allergic to the flora of California, I really enjoyed the conference. Where else can you hear about a waxwork on display out west that turned out to be a mummy, or “piggies in peat” (experimental animal mummification using piglets in peat bogs in Europe)? I can truthfully say I attended more papers than I usually do because I was absolutely fascinated with the content and the range of subjects.

The first session was on the ethics of mummies—both the study of dead bodies and the display of them. The concept of stakeholder theory was introduced: who are the stakeholders in a mummy display?  The scientists, the museum staff, the public, the mummy itself…and the descendants of the mummy, if they can be identified. And here is a lesson for the unwary: a protest about a “stuffed Eskimo” in a museum case incensed Greenlanders until a DNA analysis proved that the body in question was of Dutch origin. Then, the protesters said it was okay to call it a “stuffed Dutchman,” just not an Eskimo. But, as we all agreed, it was clearly not respectful to label any mummy, a dead human being, a “stuffed” anything.

But how do you show respect for a dead body or a mummy of unknown origins? Although most Western societies require permission from the family before an autopsy or a burial of a recently dead body, the correct procedure for dealing with ancient remains is often unclear. Scholars such as the anthropologists, physicians, chemists, and curators at this conference strive to balance the advancement of knowledge with cultural sensitivity whenever they can. For example, many agree that modern displays of Egyptian mummies should not reveal bare bones, large areas of dried up skin, or lone body parts. This was not always the case, as many early displays showed mummies unwrapped or dissected after autopsies. In contrast, Native American human remains, such as those formerly on display at Dickson Mounds in Illinois, are now covered up completely and are only available for scientific study on a very limited basis.

People vary in their reactions to human remains in a public museum according to their upbringing and religious beliefs, so some modern displays give the visitor a choice: you can push a button on an unlit case to see the mummy inside, or if such a display offends you, just move on. One of the curators for the traveling “Mummies of the World” exhibit told us that the public response to seeing mummies on display has so far been overwhelmingly positive. A mummy shown in a scientific context (rather than in a curio cabinet with snakes and rocks), with interesting information about the person’s life as revealed by medical imaging or DNA analysis, usually fascinates rather than horrifies.
 The Iceman Otzi (new reconstruction)

Scientific studies can humanize a mummy by revealing unseen facts about the person inside. Two examples: a CT scan can reveal that a mummy is a child, not an adult, by showing adult teeth coming in right behind baby teeth, and DNA analysis has recently proven that the Tyrolean Iceman’s eyes were brown, not blue.

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Red pigment and silver mining

As I get ready to head to San Diego at the weekend for the World Mummy Congress, I am reflecting on all the places our University of Illinois mummy has taken me.

One of the strangest: the world of pigment analysis. Our red stucco covering was analyzed twice, once by a lab at the U of I, and the second time by the Getty Conservation Institute. Both times, lead oxide was identified. This is interesting because you might expect an iron oxide for the color red. But red lead, or minium, was popular in antiquity, and that is what our pigment turns out to be. Even better, the Getty researchers linked the composition to that of nine other Roman period mummies from Egypt, and to the source: the silver mine of Rio Tinto in Spain.

Why is this so cool? Because it provides additional evidence that our little mummy, a child of perhaps mixed parentage who lived in Roman Egypt, came from a relatively well-to-do family. Not only did he or she have parent who could afford exotic ingredients like minium and gold leaf for the mummy wrappings, but the portrait was originally very detailed and probably gorgeous to look at. Take a look on our website, and check out the wonderful new book on Herakleides by Lorelei Corcoran and Marie Svoboda on the red shroud mummy group.