Smithsonian adds mummies to display of spiritual life in ancient Egypt


Bronze, wood and gold leaf ibis standing, 332-30 BC, probably served as an offering for the god, Thoth. Part of the Natural History Museum's "Eternal Life in Ancient Egypt" exhibit. (Smithsonian Institution/SMITHSONIAN INSTITUTION)
March 5, 2012
Archaeology
All wrapped up and somewhere to go
“Eternal Life in Ancient Egypt,” Smithsonian Museum of Natural History

Ancient Egyptians tried to send their dead into the next world equipped with all the comforts of terrestrial existence. But they clearly left out one thing: moisturizer. Now on display at the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History, “Eternal Life in Ancient Egypt” examines the afterlife of the people who built the pyramids, both from a spiritual perspective (intricately ornamented masks, sarcophagi and jewelry) and a physical sense (ancient mummies). The artifacts are beautiful, but it’s hard to pay attention to trinkets, however exotic, when there’s an actual dead body in a glass case just a few feet away, even if it’s a very shriveled 2,000 years old.

The museum has four human mummies on display; before a renovation that was completed in November, there were just two. There are also some mummified animals, including a bull, an animal sacred to the Egyptians’ temple priests.

Recently, scientists have used CT scans to take a peek at mummies’ insides without disturbing their fragile bodies and linen wrappings, helping to determine the corpse’s age, sex and general health, and some of those images are included in the exhibition. Interestingly, when the scientists have turned their gaze on the mummified animals — many of which were sold in markets as sacred offerings — they found some to be empty fakes. Seems that the ancient world was not without its grifters.

Aaron Leitko

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