The thorny ethics of displaying Egyptian mummies to the public

A visitor looks at displayed artifacts at the National Museum of Egyptian Civilisation (NMEC) during its official reopening a day after the Pharaohs' Golden Parade ceremony, a procession held to transport the mummified bodies of 22 ancient Egyptian kings and queens from the Egyptian Museum to their new resting place at the NMEC.

Enlarge / A visitor looks at displayed artifacts at the National Museum of Egyptian Civilisation (NMEC) during its official reopening a day after the Pharaohs’ Golden Parade ceremony, a procession held to transport the mummified bodies of 22 ancient Egyptian kings and queens from the Egyptian Museum to their new resting place at the NMEC. (credit: Gehad Hamdy/picture alliance via Getty Images)

In 1823, the chief surgeon at Massachusetts General Hospital, John Warren, prepared to autopsy a 2,500-year-old corpse. Warren figured examining the Egyptian mummy—a gift from a patron that had been placed in the hospital’s surgical ward to collect quarters from gawkers—would advance knowledge of the ancients. He carefully began cutting through the old linen, and then stopped. He had exposed a blackened but exquisitely preserved head: high cheekbones, wisps of brown hair, gleaming white teeth. As Warren later recounted, this was a person, and “being unwilling to disturb” him further, he stopped there.

Fast forward to last October, when the press was on hand as Egyptian archaeologists opened the first of a cache of 59 recently discovered mummies for the whole world to see, revealing a perfectly wrapped body. Video of the event went viral, and the Twitter pushback followed: “Even in death POC can’t escape the prying and opportunistic advances of white people,” wrote one user, in a tweet that gained nearly a quarter-million likes.

The question of whether it is unseemly, ghoulish, disrespectful, or even racist to display ancient corpses, or whether it’s a noble contribution to science and education, has nagged mummy displays since Warren took up his scalpel nearly 200 years ago. And the Black Lives Matter movement’s focus on issues of cultural ownership and appropriation has only added fuel to a persistent ethical dilemma for museums and experts who study mummies.

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#mummies, #science

Egyptologists translate the oldest-known mummification manual

Battered ancient text against a white background.

Enlarge (credit: University of Copenhagen)

Egyptologists have recently translated the oldest-known mummification manual. Translating it required solving a literal puzzle; the medical text that includes the manual is currently in pieces, with half of what remains in the Louvre Museum in France and half at the University of Copenhagen in Denmark. A few sections are completely missing, but what’s left is a treatise on medicinal herbs and skin diseases, especially the ones that cause swelling. Surprisingly, one section of that text includes a short manual on embalming.

For the text’s ancient audience, that combination might have made sense. The manual includes recipes for resins and unguents used to dry and preserve the body after death, along with explanations for how and when to use bandages of different shapes and materials. Those recipes probably used some of the same ingredients as ointments for living skin, because plants with antimicrobial compounds would have been useful for preventing both infection and decay.

New Kingdom embalming: More complicated than it used to be

The Papyrus Louvre-Carlsberg, as the ancient medical text is now called, is the oldest mummification manual known so far, and it’s one of just three that Egyptologists have ever found. Based on the style of the characters used to write the text, it probably dates to about 1450 BCE, which makes it more than 1,000 years older the other two known mummification texts. But the embalming compounds it describes are remarkably similar to the ones embalmers used 2,000 years earlier in pre-Dynastic Egypt: a mixture of plant oil, an aromatic plant extract, a gum or sugar, and heated conifer resin.

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#ancient-egypt, #archaeology, #egyptology, #embalming, #mummies, #mummification, #papyrus, #science

Egyptian royal mummy shows pharaoh wasn’t assassinated—he was executed

Egyptian royal mummy shows pharaoh wasn’t assassinated—he was executed

Enlarge (credit: Saleem and Hawass 2021)

CT scans of a mummified Egyptian pharaoh, once suspected to be the victim of a palace assassination, suggest that he was actually executed after being captured in battle in the mid-16th century BCE.

Pharaoh Seqenenre led his army from Upper Egypt in the 1550s BCE to face the Hyksos, a group of warriors from the Levant who occupied Lower Egypt and demanded tribute from Upper Egypt during what historians call the Second Intermediate Period. It’s known that Seqenenre died during this conflict, but it’s been unclear whether he was assassinated in his bed in the palace at Thebes or died on the battlefield.

A computed tomography (CT) scan offered a look at his wounds, along with the details of his mummification. Radiologist Sahar Saleem of Cairo University and former Egyptian Minister of Antiquities Zahi Hawass concluded that he most likely died near the front lines and was brought back to Thebes for mummification and burial.

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#ancient-egypt, #anthropology, #archaeology, #biological-anthropology, #egypt, #egyptology, #forensic-anthropology, #forensics, #hyksos, #mummies, #mummy, #science

Ancient embalmers used mud to hold a damaged mummy together

Color photo of painted coffin (top) and linen-wrapped mummy (bottom).

Enlarge / Sir Charles Nicholson donated the mummified person and the coffin to the University of Sydney in 1860, apparently having realized that an entire dead body is a pretty horrific travel souvenir. (credit: Sowada et al, PLOS ONE (CC BY 4.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/))

Approximately 3,200 years ago in Egypt, ancient embalmers encased a mummy in dried mud to repair the damage done by careless tomb robbers. Archaeologists recently used a CT scanner to unravel part of the dead person’s story. The study, published in the journal PLOS ONE, revealed an unknown mummification technique, along with a strange tale of grave robbing, family devotion, and mistaken identity.

The person, now known only as NMR.27.3, died relatively young. The name of the deceased is lost to history, and their gender is debatable (more on that later). After death, grave robbers broke into their tomb at least twice, and now archaeologists have pieced together some fragments of the story—mostly the postmortem chapters.

What is left behind is a rare glimpse of life and death in ancient Egypt. The anonymous mummified person reveals that even years after death, living relatives still cared enough about the deceased to actually have the corpse repaired (sort of) after grave robbers damaged it. And to repair the mummy, ancient embalmers plastered mud over the linen wrappings to help the body hold its shape, a technique that modern archaeologists have never seen before.

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#ancient-egypt, #archaeology, #egyptology, #embalming, #funeral-practices, #human-remains, #mummies, #new-kingdom, #science

Egyptian archaeologists unearth dozens of tombs at Saqqara necropolis

Color photo of fragments of papyrus laid out on a table

Enlarge / Copies of the Book of the Dead, or excerpts from it, were often included in burials so the deceased would have a guide to the afterlife. (credit: Egyptian Ministry of Tourism and Antiquities)

Archaeologists in Egypt are preparing to open a 3,000-year-old burial shaft at the Saqqara necropolis, south of Cairo, in the coming week.

The unexplored tomb is one of 52 burial shafts clustered near the much older pyramid of the Pharaoh Teti. Workers at the site found the entrance to the latest shaft earlier this week as they were preparing to announce a slew of other finds at the site, including the tombs of military leaders and high-ranking courtiers, a copy of the Book of the Dead, and ancient board games. Also among the discoveries is the name of the owner of an elaborate mortuary temple near Teti’s pyramid: Narat or Naert, the pharaoh’s queen.

“I’d never heard of this queen before. Therefore we add an important piece of Egyptian history about this queen,” archaeologist and former Egyptian Minister of Antiquities Zahi Hawass told CBS News. Archaeologists first unearthed the stone temple in 2010, but it wasn’t clear who the grand structure had been built for. At mortuary temples like this one, priests and supplicants could make offerings to the dead queen to keep her comfortable in the afterlife—and ask her to help them out in this world.

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#ancient-egypt, #archaeology, #book-of-the-dead, #burials, #egypt, #egyptology, #mummies, #new-kingdom, #old-kingdom, #science

Yukon gold miner unearths a mummified Ice Age wolf pup

Color photo of wolf mummy puppy laying on a pillow

Enlarge / The puppy’s remains are dried out but mostly intact thanks to being buried in permafrost. (credit: Government of Yukon)

This Ice Age wolf puppy doesn’t look much like a fearsome predator, what with her tiny puppy teeth and soft little ears. According to her DNA, however, the mummified puppy, named Zhùr, came from a population that’s among the ancestors of all modern wolves. Canada’s permafrost freeze-dried her remains shortly after her death around 57,000 years ago.

“She’s the most complete wolf mummy that’s ever been found. She’s basically 100 percent intact—all that’s missing are her eyes,” said Des Moines University paleontologist Julie Meachen.

Puppy surprise

In July 2016, miner Neil Loveless of Favron Enterprises was searching for gold in Alaska’s famed Klondike gold fields. He was water-blasting the frozen mud along the banks of Last Chance Creek. It’s a process called “hydraulic thawing,” meant to thaw and soften the frozen permafrost so miners can search for gold in the streambed deposits, an approach called placer mining. But Loveless found something far stranger and even more interesting than Klondike gold: a frozen, mummified wolf puppy.

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#ancient-dna, #gold-mining, #klondike, #mummies, #paleontology, #permafrost, #pleistocene, #science, #wolves, #yukon