Mummies, Museums and Me

When you work as a museum educator, the types of tasks that you find yourself doing can be pretty unusual. Lately I have been working on a project regarding mummification and how to best present the process of mummification in ancient Egypt to the general public. So I have been reading about mummies, watching videos about mummies, and looking at a lot of mummies.

But they are not just mummies, they are also people. In some cases (such as ancient Egyptians) they are a few thousand years old, and their bodies are shriveled by drying and blacked by sap and resin, but once upon a time they were also living and breathing. They experienced love, joy, sadness, life, and death. They have the same muscles and bones that I have, their lives just took place much earlier than mine.

What happens after we die is a question none of us really have an answer to, and what happens to your body after you die can very widely based on a number of factors, such as the wishes of you and your family, religion, and the culture you live in. One of the things that has always intrigued me is that regardless of what your personal wishes may be, once you die you lose any true control over what happens to your physical body.

Your family might ignore your personal wishes, the soil you are buried in may decay your body far faster than you would have thought possible. Even if you take the careful steps that ancient Egyptians took your body might still not last forever and what happens to it may be far stranger than you could have ever imagined, because life moves on and changes in ways that you could have never predicted when you were alive.

I am not here to debate what should happen with human remains and the issues that come with putting human remains on display, but over the past few weeks I have simply been incredibly intrigued by how people who were mummified can travel, impact science, and remain part of the world long after they died.

There is something strangely comforting to me about The Field’s mummy display. While I don’t enjoy the people that barrel through the exhibit taking strange pictures with the mummies, when I go through the exhibit early in the morning and have a chance to sit and talk to them for a moment it feels very peaceful to me.

We know very little about these people, mainly the sex and rough age of each individual, sometimes we know their name. They have traveled farther than they ever could have while they were alive and been seen by more people in death than in life. They have been x-rayed and cat scanned and studied using modern science techniques that they could have never imagined. They have also linked people together, a strange line of people starting with them and their families, the embalmers who prepared their bodies, the grave robbers who pillaged their tombs, the archaeologists who excavated them, the scientists who first x-rayed and examined them, today’s Egyptologists,  the guests who view them every year, and finally to me, the young women who is studying them in 2013, roughly 3,500 years after they died.

A few weeks ago I came across a book of The Field’s mummies when they were first x-rayed in the 1930s. It was like going through an old photo album, I recognized so many of them. It was like looking at pictures of friends. Friends who lived thousands of years ago, and it was incredible. Because we could all use a few friends that are thousands of years old.

Here is a link to the digitized version of the book. Because being able to get on the internet and look at x-rays taken in the 1930s of people that lived thousands of years ago is a pretty special thing.

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