Museum’s mummies multiplying


An Egyptian mummy and coffin from 150 B.C.- 50 A.D. that is part of the exhibit, "Eternal Life in Ancient Egypt" is seen at the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History. (Matt McClain/FOR THE WASHINGTON POST)
November 25, 2011

One of the sure-fire magnets at any museum is its collection of mummies. The Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History reopened Nov. 17 with a redesigned display of mummies, both animal and human.

Eternal Life in Ancient Egypt” now shows four human mummies (double the previous display) and, in 11 newly designed cases, explains what the museum’s scientists have learned about the artifacts and Egyptian burial practices. Before, there were three rather musty cases in an outdated exhibit hall.

The renovation cost $154,000 and took 11 / 2 years.

“Ancient Egyptians were obsessed with life and spent their lives preparing for life ever after,” said Melinda Zeder, an archaeologist and lead exhibit curator of the section’s makeover. “The mummies are our hook. We also wanted to highlight the science and research of the staff,” which included the physical anthropologists, the vertebrate zoologists and entomologists.

Discoveries include a lower half of a shrewlike animal in the stomach of a mummified snake. The researchers also learned that a human mummy everyone believed was that of a female was actually a male’s. And, a mummified cat had had its neck snapped.


A man's mummy mask, dating back to 200-30 B.C., is on display as part of "Eternal Life in Ancient Egypt" at the National Museum of Natural History. (Smithsonian Institution)

Here’s what new:

Older male mummy

Studies indicate a male about 40 and most likely dating to about 500 B.C. The wrappings signify that he was an individual of some means but not a royal personage.

Young male mummy

Based on his tooth eruption and long bone growth, researchers put his age at about 31 / 2 years. The simple shroud and lack of elaborate wrapping indicate he was a commoner. Based on skull features, he was likely to have had mixed Mediterranean and African ancestry.

Divine bull

The museum has two rare bull mummies, and this one had been in storage. This mummy contains the remains of a bull, dating to between 300 B.C. and A.D. 400, wrapped in linen. He was a sacred animal to the temple priests and was preserved after death to guarantee eternal life.

Crocodiles

Animals were beloved by their owners and were included in the burial process to give humans companions in the afterlife. Crocodiles were associated with Sobek-Ra, the crocodile-headed god.

Name cones

These funerary cones were carved with the names of the deceased. Visitors were encouraged to say the names so that person would be remembered and help extend his or her persona into eternity.

Bird with long beak

Many animals, including birds, were mummified as offerings to the gods. The ibis was considered sacred.

New technology and cases

More information is displayed in the redesigned cases. The museum scientists used technology such as the CAT scan to research the ancient wrapped artifacts. That new information is incorporated into the show’s text, along with details about the research, in two large cases. One exhibit is a facial reconstruction of what the young male mummy probably looked like.

Eternal Life

National Museum of Natural History, 10th Street and Constitution Avenue. Hours are 10 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. generally. mnh.si.edu/exhibits.

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