Ancient Lives, New Discoveries: Fascinating Look into the Life and Death of Eight Ancient Egyptians

Book cover for Ancient Lives, New Discoeries; photo by British Museum Shop

Book cover for Ancient Lives, New Discoeries; photo by British Museum Shop

Review: Ancient Lives, New Discoveries: Eight Mummies, Eight Stories. By John H. Taylor and Daniel Antoine. Published by the British Museum as part of their currently ongoing museum exhibit with the same title.

Ancient Egypt has continued to be an era that fascinates and intrigues scholars, archaeologists and the general public alike. Most of all, we’ve been captivated by the process of mummification. Perhaps it is the fact that mummies look more like the living than the dead with their skin and hair remaining thousands of years after most humans are reduced to mere bone. On the other hand, it may be more the process and goals of mummification that continue to captivate us- the amount of time and energy that were put into immortalizing the deceased and preserving their mortal remains. Personally, I find that it isn’t the dead that I’m intrigued by- it’s the living- the men, women and children who practiced mummification, aided in the mummification of their relatives and rulers, and in time became mummified themselves in order to protect their ancestors and themselves in the afterlife.

Taylor and Antoine (2014) have done a fantastic job with presenting us the personal side of mummification by unwrapping and unraveling the identities of eight individuals, as well as introducing us to the history of the study of mummies.

Mummies have been a focus of research and investigation for over 200 years, and the British Museum has been curating these remains since the 1750s. Early interest into mummies however began much earlier, when their ground up remains were viewed as a necessary ingredient for medicines and cure-all elixirs (for more on this, check out this post). By the 17th and 18th centuries, mummies evolved into a curiosity, and were found as part of traveling shows and private collections. A popular form of research in the 19th century was known as “unwrapping” or “unrolling” events; where academics and inquisitive Victorians could watch as a mummy was slowly taken apart. While for many this unraveling and investigation aided in answering questions about the process and beliefs behind mummification, it also was motivated by morbid curiosity. Luckily for us, the British Museum did not take part- so its mummies have remained intact.

Unwrapping a mummy from its linen is an irreversible and destructive method for investigating this ancient practice, but for many decades it was the only method that allowed exploration into this type of practice. Today, we have X-rays and computerized tomography (CT) scanners that allow us to see beyond the linen and resin, and learn more about the people inside these preserved mummies. Using this new technology, the British Museum can not only look at the bones, but at the constituent layers that make up the mummy, and present these using 3D visualisations. Doing this type of 3D reconstruction work is not only a great way for the public to see inside the sarcophagi and wrappings; it is an amazing research tool. By having the 3D version, researchers can study the visualization instead of having to disturb the remains themselves. The bodies can be moved and seen from all sides without the potential of damage to the deceased.

While the history and technology is fascinating, I know that you’re here for the good stuff- the mummies themselves.

Taylor and Antoine (2014) present us with the stories of eight individual mummies found at the British Museum. Each individual is presented as a biological individual- defined by their sex, age at death, period they lived in and the methods they used to determine this; as an archaeological specimen- detailing how their remains were discovered and eventually ended up in the museum; as a living human being- by describing the Ancient Egypt that they experienced and survived in; and finally, as a deceased member of the community- how they died, how they were mummified (either naturally or with technical help through embalming), what gifts they were and given to take into the afterlife. It is a fascinating review of the life-course of these fascinating individuals from life to death to museum specimen to being reborn in 3D. While I would love to share each and every individual’s story, I’ll just give you a sneak peek into one- you’ll need to get the book for yourself or visit the exhibit.

Tamut's 3D reconstruction and cartonnage case, photo by the British Museum

Tamut’s 3D reconstruction and cartonnage case, photo by the British Museum

The individual under investigation is a female adult, who was found in Thebes and was alive during the early 22nd Dynasty (circa 900 BCE). She was discovered in her sarcophagus the 19th century and became part of a private collection of a French consul working in Egypt. Across her painted cartonnage case was her name: Tamut. While she was alive, the kingdom of Egypt had begun to decline- its days of prosperity were fading. She was surrounding by people from across the Middle East and Africa who had flocked to share in the kingdom’s wealth. Based on inscriptions, she was most likely spent her days working for religious temples, providing food and drink to the gods, and accompanying religious ceremonies with music. She was also the daughter of one of the major priests in Karnak, which afforded her great status.

When Tamut died, she had lived at least in her thirties. At the time of death, she had short hair, indicating that she most likely wore a wig. In general, she had better dental health than many of her contemporaries, but an abscess in one of teeth likely caused her pain and discomfort in the last days of her life. Her arteries contain evidence of calcified plaque, indicating that she may have had a diet rich in animal fat or a genetic pre-disposition to cardiovascular disease. The cause of her actual death is unknown, but may have been linked to these two pathologies. After her death, her body was well-taken care of by professional embalmers who excellently preserved her mortal remains. Amulets and charms were placed across her body as she was wrapped, showing the importance of supernatural protection in the netherworld. Tamut was given an incredible send-off into the afterlife, and to this day, her worldly remains are protected and preserved.

If you want to learn more about this amazing exhibit, there are two ways:

1) Visit the British Museum from now until November 30, 2014 and see the exhibit itself. Adult tickets are only £10, and students can get in for £8. For more information on the exhibit, check out their website: Ancient Lives, New Discoveries.

2) You can purchase the book online through either Amazon or the British Museum Shop.

Hopefully in two weeks, I will get the chance to see the museum exhibit for “Ancient Lives, New Discoveries” for myself! This is the type of exhibit that I would like to see more of- this isn’t about morbid curiosity, it is about learning who the individuals were who inhabited Ancient Egypt. It is a personal glimpse into the lives of eight people just like us, who lived, died, and have attained their immortal goal of maintaining their preservation.

[Title page photo is from the Christian tattooed woman, also by the British Museum]

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