Virtual Unwrappings

Last Friday, to the British Museum, pausing en route from King’s Cross only to snap the plaque on the house of Sir Samuel Romilly.

Sir Samuel Romilly lived (and died) here: just off Russell Square, London

Sir Samuel Romilly lived (and died) here: just off Russell Square, London

The cover image used here is a print from the portrait by Sir Thomas Lawrence

The cover image used here is a print from the portrait by Sir Thomas Lawrence

I was meeting Him Indoors to see the ‘Ancient Lives, New Discoveries’ exhibition before it closes on 19 April, and (following my Resolution) ‘Defining Beauty: The Body in Ancient Greek Art’, which opened last week and runs until 5 July. [Stop Press! BM has just announced a further reprieve for the mummies – now till 12 July!]

As we are Friends of the British Museum, we can swan into an exhibition without pre-booking, and indeed enjoy coffee and a bun in the ‘Members’ Room’. I do hope the Museum realises that we are happy to reciprocate and that it can drop by any time to view our Stuff and have an instant coffee and a biscuit (if I’ve bought any recently).

‘Ancient Lives’ focuses on eight mummies in the British Museum’s world-famous Egyptological collection, which have been examined using CT scanning technology, which enables almost millimetre-by-millimetre visual ‘slices’ through an object (and of course is more familiar as a medical diagnostic tool). These two-dimensional slices can then be displayed as stunning three-dimensional images moving from the surface of the body through the bones to the soft tissues, enabling a close examination of the mummy which was previously achievable only via the destructive process of unwrapping the linen bandages in which the remains were bound.

Unwrapping a mummy was an after-dinner party trick of the distinguished surgeon and antiquary Thomas Joseph Pettigrew (1791–1865), who published his History of Egyptian Mummies in 1834, when there was considerable European interest in ancient Egypt, the consequence of Napoleon’s invasion and defeat, the decipherment of the hieroglyphs, and the (relatively) easier access for travellers.


However, most museums took a more curatorial view of their possessions, and, according to the exhibition, none of the BM’s acquisitions were ever unwrapped, in spite of the tantalising possibilities of finding out more about the mummification technique, medical information about the bodies, and the small amulets and jewellery which were frequently embedded in the bandaging.

The exhibition has a photograph of the Egyptologist, anthropologist and folklorist Margaret Murray (1863–1963), who worked with Petrie at Abydos, unwrapping a mummy in Manchester in 1908, before an audience of 500 people, apparently. But now that the technology is available to see inside the wrappings, a tremendous amount of information can be obtained without the need to perform irreversible invasive procedures.

Margaret Murray, dissecting in 908

Margaret Murray, dissecting in 1908

The eight mummies are range from the predynastic ‘Gebelein Man’ (about 3500 BCE), whose body was preserved by ‘natural’ mummification in the hot sand of his grave, to a Christian woman who died in the Sudan about 700 CE, and whose body was again preserved by her environment. In between, there are six deliberately mummified bodies, though all are ‘late’ chronological terms, the second being from the 26th Dynasty (about 600 BCE), the third and fifth from the 22nd, the fourth from the 25th, and the sixth and seventh from the Roman period. The latter is a two-year-old boy discovered by Petrie at Hawara.

This tiny child with his elaborate golden mask raises an interesting question which had never before occurred to me: child mummies are very rare in Egypt – despite the prominence in our minds of the boy pharaoh, Tutankhamun. It was only in the Roman period that small children were deliberately preserved (the seven-year-old temple singer displayed here was an exception perhaps because of her religious status?). What does this tell us about the Egyptian attitude to the ‘human-ness’ of children? It is suggested that high infant mortality meant that most families could not afford this expensive guarantee of immortality, but is this the only explanation?

Interestingly, the ‘Defining Beauty’ exhibition mentions the ancient Greek attitude to babies: it was not until 10 days after the birth that a child was named, and entered into the familial and social relationships that would subsequently (all being well) sustain it. Was the Greek acceptance of the exposure of unwanted babies derived from a belief that the newborn were not fully human?

One thing that the adult mummies had in common was dental problems: some of the teeth probably came out post-mortem, but the horrific abscess holes in the jawbones were enough to prompt me to make that overdue appointment with the hygienist. Donkey’s years ago, I read an article that has stuck with me: Egyptologists, surprised about poor teeth in an environment largely free of sugar, analysed bread preserved in tombs, and a terrifying proportion of the ingredients was in fact small pieces of grit, convincingly accounting for tooth damage, resulting infection, and terrible pain.

This image of bread, fruit and  grain from New Kingdom tombs, about 1400 BCE comes from the National Museums Liverpool blog

This image of bread, fruit and grain from New Kingdom tombs, about 1400 BCE comes from the National Museums Liverpool blog

Mummification was clearly a question of paying for what you got: the unfortunate Padiamenet, doorkeeper and chief barber of the Temple of Ra at Thebes about 700 BCE, not only had dental abscesses (plural) and plaque in the arteries in life, but also had the indignity of being too big for his coffin, which had to be artificially (and crudely) extended. The scanning process revealed a bit of an implement for extracting the brain through the nasal cavities, broken off and left in one skull, and another mummy had two connecting bars in its neck where the process appears almost to have severed the head from the body.

This was a thought-provoking exhibition, and the 3-D displays of the interiors of the bodies were remarkable. I have one slight reservation: after dutifully twiddling the interactive buttons to view them all, I badly needed to wash my hands to remove the (possibly imaginary) germs acquired from their very crusty surfaces. This interaction was unnecessary, as other displays slowly rotated by themselves; but if they wanted to encourage us to be hands-on, should the curators perhaps have supplied antiseptic gel or wipes? Or am I getting squeamish in my old age, and after so many abscesses on view?


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