2017-03-23 12:30:03
Unraveling the Mystery of Who Lies Beneath the Cloth

Mummy No. 30007, currently residing at the American Museum of Natural History, is a showstopper. She’s known as the Gilded Lady, for good reason: Her coffin, intricately decorated with linen, a golden headdress and facial features, has an air of divinity. She’s so well preserved that she looks exactly how the people of her time hoped she would appear for eternity. To contemporary scientists, however, it’s what they don’t see that is equally fascinating: Who was this ancient woman, and what did she look like when she was alive?

This is one of the many mysteries examined in “Mummies,” which opened at the museum on Monday and runs through Jan. 7. More than a dozen specimens are on display; some have not been on public view in more than 100 years, since the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago. The show, which originated at the Field Museum in Chicago, explores how and why two civilizations separated by about 7,500 miles — ancient Egypt and pre-Columbian Peru — practiced mummification.

With its somber lighting and music, the exhibition almost commands reverence; we are in the company of the dead, after all. But the show also includes virtual mummies that viewers can unwrap at interactive tables. The easy-to-navigate space reveals rare artifacts and three-dimensional imaging of what lies beneath the cloth. The hero of modern mummy investigations, the CT scanner, is prominently displayed at the start of the exhibition. It gives archaeologists an inside look at the millenniums-old specimens without damaging them. A century ago, scientists would unwrap their finds, often harming them in the process — one of the real mummies in the show was decapitated when archaeologists removed its face covering.

The Gilded Lady, though, was never unwrapped. Archaeologists used CT scanning to create a 3-D print of her skull, which helped a forensic artist reconstruct her facial features. They even determined her potential cause of death — tuberculosis — about 2,000 years ago. Dating to Roman-era Egypt, she was probably in her 40s when she succumbed, had curly hair and an overbite.

But way before visitors meet the Gilded Lady, they are taken to Peru, where about 7,000 years ago the Chinchorro people became the first known civilization to practice mummification, thousands of years before the Egyptians. They used stone knives to cut flesh from the bones of the dead. Then the preparers would dry or smoke the flesh, clean the bones and reinforce the skeleton using reeds and clay. Then they would reattach the skin to the body and paint it black or red. One of the final steps was to adorn their mummies with a clay mask, modeled from the person’s face, and add a wig. Few of these fragile masks have survived, but a replica is on display encased in glass.

Dozens of other societies in the region of what is now Peru also mummified their dead. It was a way to preserve family members and establish a dynasty. They would pack them into bundles of cloth or wool, shaped like a sitting person. Sometimes ceramics or personal items would be put in the bundles. The Chancay culture in Peru placed the bundles upright in pits, and retrieved them during festivals, or when they wanted to show off their ancestors. Mummification was a way to keep family members close, unlike the ancient Egyptians, who sought to set up the dead for an afterlife with the gods. A full-size diorama shows what a pit looked like.

(The exhibit was organized by David Hurst Thomas, curator of North American archaeology, and John J. Flynn, a curator of fossil mammals, both at the American Museum of Natural History.)

The Peru section also displays several skulls that were manipulated to have bumps or appear oblong. Archaeologists think that some Peruvian cultures practiced cranial shaping on the developing skulls of newborns.

In the Egypt section are the more familiar types of mummies. Egyptians began mummifying their dead around 3,500 B.C., preparing them much more extravagantly than the Peruvians did and using an early form of embalming.

To prepare a body, the Egyptians made an incision in the abdomen and removed the intestines, kidneys and lungs, usually leaving the heart in place. They used hooked instruments to extract the brain through the nostrils. It was tossed. Ancient Egyptians placed little value on the brain, believing thoughts came from the heart, according to archaeologists. The organs were preserved and stored in jars, which would be stored in the mummy’s tomb. The bodies were cleaned and soaked in a solution, and then left to dry for five or six weeks. After a mummy was dried, oils were rubbed on its skin, sometimes for days. Then, the body was wrapped, from each individual toe up to the head.

The first Egyptian station features four canopic jars, which safeguarded the organs of the deceased. They are adorned with the faces of a jackal, a baboon, a human and a hawk, which represent different Egyptian gods Huddled in a fetal position nearby is the exhibition’s oldest mummy, at between 5,000 and 6,000 years old and found in Egypt. Her dried feet and skull emerge from what appears to be a straw or cloth covering. This woman was preserved not by embalmers, like the Gilded Lady, was but by natural causes — a reminder that some mummies are accidents.

The diversity of coffins in the Egyptian section reflects wealth disparity. Not everyone was a mighty pharaoh or prosperous merchant able to afford a fancy sarcophagus made of stone or a coffin made of imported wood that was painted with elaborate designs of Osiris, god of the underworld, and stored in a grandiose tomb. There are also coffins in the familiar curvy Egyptian shape made of cheap wood for those seeking an economy-class ride to the afterlife. Many of the extravagant sarcophagi are damaged, victims of looting.

What the mummies from Peru and Egypt have in common is the care that went into their preparation, and their placement in cloth bundles or elaborate sarcophagi, to be put on display for life after death, whether that meant for family members or for the gods. In witnessing them now, viewers become part of that afterlife.