The current must-see exhibit at the Fine Arts Museum combines ancient culture and cutting-edge technology, to bring us a comprehensive and coherent look into the life of ancient Egyptians. Making its North American premiere the exhibit, created by the British Museum, introduces us to six people who lived along the Nile from 900 BCE to 180 CE. To paraphrase one of Mitch Albom’s bestselling novels, the exhibit could easily be called “the six people you meet in the museum”.

Thanks to advanced 3D CT-scanning technology, we can learn about the ever-evolving embalming techniques, the surprising prevalence of cardiovascular disease and the dental problems these people suffered with, all without the destructive act of unwrapping them. Akin to something you would see on a Nova episode, digital video is shown depicting the layers from linen wrapping, to skin and then to skeleton, for each of the individuals. Helping to tell their stories, the exhibit includes over 240 ancient artifacts.

Egyptian Mummies

Inner coffin of Nestawedjat, 25th Dynasty, about 700-680 B.C.E. © The Trustees of the British Museum

“…Having been impressed by my visit of a slightly different version of this scholarly and innovative exhibition at the British Museum several years ago, I am humbled to be able to present it in its North American premiere in Montreal. I would like to express my gratitude to those who have brought us a better understanding of mummification and the funerary rituals in ancient Egypt aimed at ensuring immortality. Thanks are also owed, of course, to our six guests from the distant past.” – Nathalie Bondil, Director General and Chief Curator, MMFA

Introductions

Before meeting any of the mummies, we begin along the Nile where a small wooden model of a funerary boat sets the scene. In the next room we meet Nestawedjat, a wealthy married woman from Thebes, who died in about 700BCE. Like Russian nesting dolls, her mummy was placed in a series of three coffins. Embalming tools, linen wrappings and canopic jars (used for holding internal organs) aid in the explanation of how and why mummification was carried out in ancient Egypt.

Tamut, a Chantress of Amun, lies in her still-vibrantly coloured coffin. Although her mummy is the oldest in the exhibit, dating back to about 900 BCE, the green and blue details on her coffin show no sign of aging. Here, the CT-scan imaging shows that she had metal nail covers and many amulets placed within her wrappings. This imaging is so detailed that scientists can determine both the shape and material of the amulets. Of particular interest is a scarab beetle amulet placed on her chest. This “heart scarab” was to prevent the misdeeds in the owner’s heart from being revealed during judgment.

The next room is devoted to Irthorru, a middle aged priest from Akhmim. His highly regarded occupation would have given him access to the finest foods, but the scans show that he suffered greatly with a dental abscess, lesions, and extensive mandible bone loss. Draped on top of his mummy, from his neck to his feet, is a delicate covering made of hundreds of teal beads. It is just one of the countless examples of care and effort that were given to honour and aid the deceased.

Egyptian Mummies

Visualisation of the mummy of Irthorru, Late Period, 26th Dynasty, about 600 B.C.E.
© The Trustees of the British Museum

Continuing on, we meet an unnamed temple singer from Thebes. She, too, shows signs of serious dental disease. Her hair was cut short, as was often the case for high-ranking individuals, so it is likely that she often wore an adorned wig made of human hair. The artifacts surrounding her represent the type of items that would have been commonly used. Musical instruments like the arched harp, the flute, and a metal percussion instrument called the sistrum, are displayed alongside necklaces, bracelets, a comb, tweezers, and cosmetic jars. Interestingly the black eye liner that was so prevalent in ancient Egypt was more than just a beautifying tool – this kohl also has antibacterial properties!

Skipping ahead several centuries to the Roman period, about 40-60 CE, we are introduced to a little boy from Hawara, only about 2 or 3 years old. The tiny coffin bares a gilded face and upper torso, with a small bouquet of pink roses and myrtle in his hand. Below this are the more traditional Egyptian coffin scenes depicting various rituals. A few feet away, a display shows the beloved objects of childhood. The clay and wood toy mouse and especially the painted toy horse that rolls on wheels, reveal how toddlers from thousands of years ago enjoyed toys similar to those we grew up with.

The final introduction is for a young man from Roman ruled Egypt, about 140-180 CE. By this time, embalming techniques and burial traditions had greatly changed. This 17-20 year old male, looks vastly different from what we commonly think of as Egyptian mummies, his outer shroud is plain except for a lifelike portrait over his face. The portrait shows a slim face, but his CT-scans reveal that he was overweight. The scans also show that aside from his brain all his internal organs were untouched by embalmers and his wrappings contain a wooden board that was placed under his body.

An Unexpected After-Life

The goal of mummification was to preserve the body, so the person would live on in the after-life. Though, they surely never imagined lying in a museum on the other side of the world, thousands of years after their death. Their preservation has allowed us to know their names, learn about their lives and their culture, so in that way they do live on.

Egyptian Mummies: Exploring Ancient Lives continues through March 29, 2020. Visit www.mbam.qc.ca  or call 514-285-2000 for current ticket prices and opening hours.

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