For decades, the coffin was relegated to an acrylic display case in a classroom used for workshops and field trips at the Nicholson Museum in Sydney.
The outside of the sarcophagus was intriguing enough: The face of a woman at rest was carved into the dark wood. Hieroglyphs indicated its occupant was Mer-Neith-it-es, a high priestess from the temple of the goddess Sekhmet.
The coffin, from the 6th century B.C., had been purchased by Sir Charles Nicholson from an Egyptian antiquities market in 1857 or 1858, records said. It was among the hundreds of items Nicholson had bequeathed to the University of Sydney to launch the museum that would bear his name.
But according to museum records, the sarcophagus was empty — or contained debris, at best — and so, year after year, it remained out of public view.
That will no longer be the case.
Museum archaeologists opened the coffin last summer, expecting to find a “few residual bandages and bones from a mummy removed by tomb robbers in the 19th century,” senior curator Jamie Fraser wrote in the March issue of Muse, a University of Sydney publication.
“We could not have been more wrong,” he said.
Inside, they discovered a stunning jumble of human bones, resin fragments, bandages, and faience beads that had once rested over the mummy as a net. One thing was certain: The coffin was not empty — and it most likely had held human remains the entire time.
Researchers were faced with an ethical quandary. Should they excavate the mummy to learn more or let the contents be?
According to the university, mummies generally fall into two categories: those in good condition, with no reason to touch them, and those purchased at markets, which are often in such bad condition that there’s an ethical obligation to excavate them. Mer-Neith-it-es was clearly in the second category, officials said.
And they couldn’t assume that Mer-Neith-it-es was the actual mummy inside the sarcophagus, even if it bore her name.
“At the time [in 1850s Egypt] mummies were popular souvenirs,” the university said in a statement. “Anyone could go to a market and buy a coffin and ask for a mummy to be ‘thrown in’ for a few extra quid. Often the mummy and the coffin aren’t matched.”
(For example, the university noted that one of its mummies, Pediashakhet, lived in about 100 B.C., but its coffin dates to 700 B.C. Meanwhile, another of its mummies is a man but rests in a coffin made for a woman.)
In the case of the Mer-Neith-it-es coffin, the ethical concerns were lessened because it was clear that ancient tomb robbers had already heavily damaged its contents, Fraser said. With that in mind, and in the interest of protecting the remains from Sydney’s heat and humidity, researchers at the Nicholson Museum decided to move forward with the excavations.
First, they arranged for a CT scan so they could get a fuller picture of the coffin’s contents. The night before the scheduled scan, Fraser told a film crew he could barely sleep.
The CT scan did not disappoint.
“While the remains inside the Mer-Neith-it-es coffin were indeed mixed, the scanner detected two mummified ankles, feet and toes, consistent with a single person,” Fraser wrote in the university magazine. “The fused ends of some of the bones suggest the person was at least 30 years old.”
In other words, the possibility that the mummy was that of the Egyptian priestess Mer-Neith-it-es could not be ruled out.
Next came the physical excavation.
Archaeologists “painstakingly” sifted through layers of debris until reaching the parts of the feet and ankles that the CT scan had revealed earlier, according to ABC News.
“That should be the toes,” Connie Lord, an Egyptologist at the University of Sydney, pointed out to an excited Fraser on camera. She laughed. “There could even be toenails, which would be really thrilling. It’s weird to want that, but that’s what I want. Toenails are fantastic for radiocarbon dating.”
Fraser said researchers are only beginning to learn what they can about the coffin, along with three other mummies in the Nicholson Museum’s collection.
“All of these bits of information are starting to tally with what we would expect if that person was Mer-Neith-it-es herself. We’re never going to get the smoking gun. We’re never going to get a written bit of papyrus saying, ‘My name is Mer-Neith-it-es.’ But by putting together this sort of picture, we can start to refine down the possibilities.”
The university is constructing a new museum, the Chau Chak Wing Museum, which will house collections from several of the school’s existing museums and galleries. The new space will include a special room devoted to mummies and Egyptology, but likely with one major difference: This time, the Mer-Neith-it-es coffin will be prominently displayed.