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Photograph: ©AMNH/D. Finnin

Peek inside ancient mummies at the Field Museum's latest exhibit

With its latest exhibit, ‘Mummies,’ the Field Museum examines the age-old tradition under a new light

Written by
Grace Perry

As the adage goes, never judge a mummy by its coffin. There’s a whole lot more than meets the eye within these ancient bundles, and researchers at the Field Museum of Natural History know that better than most. In 2014, the institution received a temporary, on-site CT scanner, allowing researchers to peer into these tombs without touching and potentially damaging the fragile artifacts inside. Those findings inspired the Field Museum’s latest exhibition, “Mummies,” which opens on March 16.

Given their delicacy, many of the tombs had not been opened for scientific examination in more than 100 years. According to the show’s project manager, Janet Hong, the scans revealed plenty of surprises: The bodies inside were buried with everything from musical instruments and pots to corn and a newborn baby. In total, 22 mummies—14 humans and eight animals—from the museum’s collection will be on display. Some of these remains have been in the institution’s possession since its opening, in 1893.

While mummification is most commonly associated with Egypt, people all over the ancient world practiced the tradition. Peruvians started wrapping and preserving the dead 2,000 years earlier than the Egyptians did. “Mummies” explores both cultures to expose visitors to “two areas of the world where the traditions are the longest and the most interesting,” says Hong.

The CT scans also gave researchers a more accurate picture of what the encased bodies looked like when they were living. Researchers used a 3-D printer to replicate the skulls of two Egyptian mummies, a teenage boy and a woman. Those models were sent to French artist Élisabeth Daynès, who (according to Hong) creates “unnervingly real forensic reconstructions of people.” These lifelike sculptures are featured in the exhibit, offering a more dynamic view of ancient history.  “You get the feeling that you’re really face-to-face with people who lived thousands of years ago,” Hong says.

“Mummies” runs at the Field Museum for 13 months, until April 2019. If you’re spooked by the idea of getting up close and personal with a dessicated body, you’ve got plenty of time to prepare yourself.

Unwrap the “Mummies” exhibit at the Field Museum from March 16, 2018 to Apr 21, 2019.

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