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Egyptian Mummies: Exploring Ancient Lives

  • Museums

Time Out says

Six mummies from Ancient Egypt are calling the Powerhouse Museum their home for this major exhibition

Head down to the Powerhouse Museum for the world premiere of Egyptian Mummies: Exploring Ancient Lives, on now. The exhibition is an interactive display of six mummies who lived and died in Egypt between 900 BC and AD 40, alongside 200 objects which provide a snapshot of life in Ancient Egypt. 

The mummies have been transported from the British Museum’s collection after being scanned at Royal Brompton Hospital using non-invasive CT scans (they’re very precious) and 3D visualisation technology. The scans, which will be on display in the exhibition, reveal the age, diet and sex of these ancient beings, and the accompanying artefacts explore the themes of mummification, divinity and elements of these people’s lives, such as their musical instruments, medicine and children's toys.

“The mummies aren’t really all that different to ourselves,” says Melanie Pitkin, Egyptologist and exhibition curator. “Mummification is really just an expression of the Ancient Egyptian’s fear of dying – a fear that we still have today.   

“The Egyptians believed that once you died, your body became fragmented. Your soul would become separate to your body and the only way for your soul to recognise you again [in the afterlife] was to try and make your body look real again. Mummification is all about preserving yourself, because if you preserve yourself you can have an altered state of existence in another world after death.”

But the process of mummification is a whole lot different to any funerary process that you may be familiar with. Pitkin tells us, “The body is first purified and then the brain is extracted through the nose. An incision is then made on the left side of the abdomen to remove the internal organs – the stomach, the lungs, the liver and the intestines – but not the heart as it was believed to be the site of all emotion and intellect.”

And it gets more gruesome. “There’s a drying out process between 35-40 days where the body is covered in natron (a naturally occurring salt) followed by the next 35 days of rebuilding the body. The aim is to make the body lifelike again, so you’d pack it with sawdust and bundles of linen to retain its form. After this, there are a number of rituals, including the wrapping of the body (for up to 15 days), then the body is placed inside a coffin.” 

Interestingly, mummification was not a common occurrence. Less than five per cent of the Ancient Egyptian population could afford to be mummified and so the six mummies on display represent members of the wealthy class. The exhibition reminds visitors that these individuals were once living people, too.

For example, Nestawedjat, was a married woman from Thebes. Tamut is the daughter of a priest whose occupation was to sing and play musical instruments to the gods. Irthorru was a priest from the town of Akhmim, and  the final adult mummy is an unnamed temple singer, who will be presented along with personal adornments – hair combs, jewellery and make-up, including the famous kohl eyeliner (not unlike Elizabeth Taylor in Cleopatra). The final two are a two-year-old child and a young male from Roman Egypt.

“This exhibition is the perfect fusion of the technological aspects and the scientific application to the past,” says Pitkin. “It really is the perfect melting pot.” - Rebecca Zhuang


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