BALTIMORE — After John F. Goucher bought the mummified remains of an ancient Egyptian and brought them home to Baltimore in the late 19th century, he tried in vain to pry his way inside the resin-stiffened decaying linens with a screwdriver.
For years after his failed effort, the identity of what has become known as the Goucher mummy, later acquired by Johns Hopkins University, remained the object of intense curiosity.
Generations later, when a team of archaeologists, historians and doctors gathered at Johns Hopkins Hospital in 1979 to perform an autopsy on the body, much of it crumbled to dust.
“Who was this man?” an Egyptologist on the team lamented at the time, according to an article in the Baltimore Sun. “What did he do? We’ll never know.”
Now, thanks to advances in technology and a growing trend toward collaboration across academic disciplines, the identity of the Goucher figure — and that of a companion specimen in the collection, the so-called Cohen mummy — has come into sharper focus.
A team of researchers based at Hopkins has generated detailed portraits of the long-deceased figures, giving visitors the rare chance to come face to face with humans who walked on Earth about 2,300 years ago.
The portraits form the core of “Who Am I? Remembering the Dead Through Facial Reconstruction,” the newest exhibition on display at the Johns Hopkins University Archaeological Museum.
The images draw on the expertise of researchers and professionals in fields as wide-ranging as fine art, art history, chemistry, osteology (the study of bones), computed tomology (CT scan technology), 3-D computer graphics and craniofacial reconstruction, all adding up to the sorts of likenesses that would have been hard to conceive of as recently as a decade ago.
Sanchita Balachandran, the museum’s associate director and the driving force behind the project, said the portraits achieve an effect that exceeded the grasp of previous researchers: They offer a chance to encounter these individuals less as modern humans might be predisposed to see them and more as they actually were.
“That’s one of the opportunities we have with this exhibit — to be able to say, ‘You know what? These people have been with us since the 1880s, and we’re only now able to see them as real people,’ ” she said.
A veteran of archaeological digs across the ancient world, Balachandran was all too familiar with the disconcerting story of Western collectors’ treatment of ancient artifacts, particularly Egyptian mummies.
In the early to mid-1800s, as Americans of means began developing a taste for what they saw as exotica from around the world, many traveled to Egypt, where mummies were plentiful and easily available to those with the cash to buy them.
Mendes I. Cohen, a military veteran who had fought in the Battle of Baltimore during the War of 1812, was one of many who returned from their travels abroad with the preserved remains of an ancient Egyptian, eager to show them off upon returning home.
He bequeathed the mummy, along with a coffin it had probably lain in, to the university upon his death in 1879.
Goucher similarly acquired “his” mummy — a better-preserved specimen than Cohen’s — in Egypt in 1895 and brought it back to Baltimore, where he donated it to the school he’d founded, the Woman’s College of Baltimore City, later renamed Goucher College.
Goucher scheduled a party at which he planned to “unwrap” the specimen, but according to newspaper accounts, he encountered a tougher exterior than he expected, tried a screwdriver, gave up in frustration and finally left to catch a train.
The mummy ended up after several decades at the Baltimore Museum of Art, where it became a major draw for paying crowds from 1938 to 1971.
That kind of placement was in keeping with the way Western exhibitors and audiences viewed mummies for years, said Meg Swaney, a doctoral student in Near Eastern studies at Hopkins and co-curator of the exhibit.
“They were often seen as curiosities that belonged in sideshows, freak shows and dime museums,” Swaney said. “People weren’t sure whether to display them in natural history museums or in art museums for the artifacts they came with. But there was so much curiosity, every museum wanted one.”
By the early 21st century, perceptions had changed: Archaeologists and others were more interested in appreciating — and respecting — these specimens in their own right. Balachandran was part of that change.
In advance of the move, she spent three weeks alone with the Goucher mummy, laboring daily to consolidate its decaying linens and reposition its bones so that “everything held together.”
The work gave Balachandran a surprising sense of connection with this woman who had walked the sands of Middle Egypt during the early Ptolemaic era — and a sense of duty to safeguard her integrity.
Technology had come a long way since the 1979 autopsy — and even since 1988, when another set of Hopkins researchers subjected the mummies to that era’s version of a CT scan.
It was about three years ago that Balachandran remembered working on another project with Caroline Wilkinson, one of the world’s leading experts in forensic facial reconstruction. Wilkinson is director of Face Lab, a research group at Liverpool John Moores University in England that carries out forensic and archaeological research.
Face Lab gained fame for creating facial renderings that help police identify fugitives and war criminals and revealing the faces of historic figures such as the English monarch Richard III.
Wilkinson quickly agreed to work via Skype with Balachandran’s team, a group that included Swaney and six undergraduates. A Johns Hopkins Arts Innovation Grant — a funding source for interdisciplinary projects at the university — provided the financial backing.
Elliot K. Fishman, a professor of radiology and the director of diagnostic imaging at Johns Hopkins Hospital, got the process underway in Baltimore by performing a state-of-the-art CT scan on the remains of the two ancient figures — as he did in 1988.
The images he generated provided Wilkinson and her lab with the blueprint from which to extrapolate a three-dimensional representation of each.
Researchers at Hopkins furnished more detail. Osteologists, for instance, found pelvic marks on the remains that showed both figures were female, and the condition of their teeth suggested an age of about 45 or 50 — information Face Lab wove into the renderings-in-progress.
Following the data as it came in, and resisting any temptation to follow preconceived ideas, Face Lab built its illustrations incrementally over the two years, allowing them to take shape at their own pace.
The approach tested the Hopkins group’s patience.
“The early versions looked sort of robotic,” Balachandran said. “At one point, we asked them, ‘When are they going to start looking more human?’ They’re true to their mission, which is to work step by step to avoid introducing any element of bias.”
The team faced a range of ethical questions along the way. Juan Garcia, director of the Johns Hopkins Facial Prosthetics Clinic, said the team could use the Face Lab illustrations to build lifelike three-dimensional busts, for example, but the group voted for two-dimensional portraits.
“Everyone felt it would risk being too macabre or creating too much of a spectacle,” said Swaney, who specializes in the ethics involved in displaying Egyptian remains.
The group further agreed that since no reliable evidence exists regarding skin tone, the illustrations should be rendered in grays.
Where other hard data was lacking — the Cohen mummy is missing its jawbone, for example, and hair color is hard to pinpoint — Face Lab either filled in with known information from the period or “blurred” those areas of the images.
The result is a pair of portraits — the Cohen figure with her shining eyes, slightly slanted mouth and protruding ears, the Goucher figure with her longer face and more muscular-looking neck — that come as close as is currently possible to representing these ancient individuals in a way that is both personal and accurate.
For Balachandran, the exhibit — which is to remain open at least until the end of next year — represents a new, less intrusive way of peering into the ancient past.
“These women look at you the moment you walk in the door; you’re looking at them, and they’re looking at you,” she said. “It feels as though they’re right here with us.”