Mummy: Se­crets of the Tomb

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Visual Arts - Christo­pher Allen

AC­CORD­ING to its web­site (at the time of writ­ing), the British Mu­seum has five loan exhibitions tour­ing across the world. One is in North Amer­ica ( The Printed Im­age in China, 8th-21st Cen­tury, at the Metropoli­tan in New York), one in China ( Pas­sion for Porce­lain: Master­pieces of Ce­ram­ics from the British Mu­seum and the Vic­to­ria and Al­bert Mu­seum, at the Na­tional Mu­seum of China in Bei­jing) and one in Ja­pan ( Jour­ney Through the Af­ter­life: The An­cient Egyp­tian Book of the Dead, at the Mori Arts Cen­tre in Tokyo). Two, mean­while, are in Aus­tralia: an ex­hi­bi­tion de­voted to an­cient Me­sopotamia in Mel­bourne and in Bris­bane one, again, about that other great cen­tre of early civil­i­sa­tion in Egypt.

In fact, the web­site in­cludes de­tails of even more exhibitions, in­clud­ing oth­ers that have not yet opened; one al­most feels as though, as a cu­ra­tor or mu­seum di­rec­tor, one could sim­ply click and add them to one’s shop­ping bas­ket. Of course it is rather more com­pli­cated than that, but it is pos­si­ble for an in­sti­tu­tion with the enor­mous depth of the British Mu­seum to put to­gether a range of exhibitions from its hold­ings and to tour them to a va­ri­ety of venues in­ter­na­tion­ally, es­pe­cially as it is in a po­si­tion to use these exhibitions as an op­por­tu­nity to show off the re­sults of new re­search. Such is the case with the Bris­bane show, whose main fo­cus is on one par­tic­u­lar mummy and the re­mark­able new work that has been done on the study of the body inside it in a per­fectly non-in­va­sive way, by ap­ply­ing what was orig­i­nally med­i­cal tech­nol­ogy to arche­ol­ogy.

Be­cause of the im­por­tance of the preser­va­tion of the body in an­cient Egyp­tian reli­gious be­lief, there were orig­i­nally scores of mil­lions of mum­mi­fied ca­dav­ers; through the cen­turies, most of these have been de­stroyed, by an­cient and mod­ern tomb rob­bers, and even burned for fuel, while thou­sands were ex­ported to Europe from the Mid­dle Ages to the early Queens­land Mu­seum, Bris­bane, un­til Oc­to­ber 21

Mel­bourne Mu­seum, un­til Oc­to­ber 7 mod­ern pe­riod, to pro­duce sup­pos­edly medic­i­nal sub­stances (French king Fran­cois I took a dose daily) and for use in magic charms such as the one pre­pared by the witches in Shake­speare’s Mac­beth.

Even with the rise of a pas­sion for Egyp­tol­ogy in the 19th cen­tury, a great many more mum­mies were de­stroyed by am­a­teur or pro­fes­sional col­lec­tors. They were freely avail­able for sale in Egypt, and Vic­to­rian gentle­men would have par­ties to un­wrap — or, as they put it, un­roll — their new ac­qui­si­tion. Of­ten they would be opened sim­ply to ex­tract the amulets and other small ob­jects, while the body it­self was dis­carded.

In the past 100 years, for­tu­nately, Egypt has en­acted strin­gent laws to sup­press tomb rob­beries, and the mu­se­ums of the world have be­come much less cav­a­lier about the un­wrap­ping of mum­mies. The one that is the cen­tre­piece of the Bris­bane ex­hi­bi­tion was ac­quired in 1899, to­gether with its sar­coph­a­gus, by E. A. Wal­lis Budge, the au­thor of, among other things, an im­por­tant book ti­tled The Gods of the Egyp­tians (1904), and has never been opened. In fact, it has not even been taken out of its in­ner cof­fin, which is made of car­ton­nage, a light shell com­posed of strips of linen and glue in a sin­gle form that en­closes the wrapped mummy, and is joined at the back be­fore be­ing plas­tered and painted with sa­cred fig­ures and em­blems to pro­tect the dead man in his jour­ney to the next life.

The mummy was iden­ti­fied by Budge on the ba­sis of the hi­ero­glyphic in­scrip­tion on the car­ton­nage cof­fin as Nes­peren­nub, a pri­est in the Kar­nak tem­ple com­plex in the 22nd Dy­nasty, about 800BC. Budge also ac­quired the sar­coph­a­gus of Nes­peren­nub’s fa­ther, but with­out its mummy, while the sar­coph­a­gus of his wife, Neskhon­spakhered, now be­longs to the Phoebe A. Hearst Mu­seum in Berke­ley, Cal­i­for­nia. From the study of these and other in­scrip­tions it is ap­par­ent that Nes­peren­nub was part of a long line of priests and had mar­ried the daugh­ter of an­other pri­est within the same cult.

In the 1960s, X-rays of the mummy al­lowed a first glimpse inside the wrapping, but large ar­eas of opaque ma­te­rial lim­ited the in­for­ma­tion that could be gleaned from these pho­to­graphs. Since that time, how­ever, the tech­nol­ogy for non-in­va­sive imag­ing has un­der­gone a re­mark­able de­vel­op­ment. Com­put­erised to­mog­ra­phy scan­ning — the pic­tur­ing of im­age slices, as the ety­mol­ogy sug­gests — yielded, in its ear­lier form, vastly im­proved re­sults that were shown in an ex­hi­bi­tion in 2004.

Since then, CT tech­nol­ogy has grown far more so­phis­ti­cated. The most up-to-date ver­sion al­lows mul­ti­ple X-rays to be taken from var­i­ous an­gles and at in­ter­vals of 0.6mm, so that when the im­ages are dig­i­tally re­assem­bled, they form a con­tin­u­ous pic­ture in three di­men­sions.

The raw data is based solely on the rel­a­tive den­sity of the ma­te­ri­als scanned, and ap­pears in black and white; when they are pro­cessed and colourised, the re­sults are al­most breath­tak­ingly vivid and minutely ac­cu­rate pic­tures of what lies hid­den inside the mummy’s shroud. And fu­ture years should bring fur­ther im­prove­ments, so that one day we may be able to read with per­fect clar­ity de­tails, such as the tabs on the end of the pri­estly sto­lae around the fig­ure’s neck, that re­main ob­scure to­day.

It is even pos­si­ble, as we see in the short film pre­sen­ta­tion that opens the Bris­bane ex­hi­bi­tion, to present the data in the form of a fly-through video. For added verisimil­i­tude, the film is in 3-D and the au­di­ence is is­sued with 3-D glasses. There is no doubt that it is ex­cit­ing to be able to race up through the spinal col­umn with the ve­loc­ity of a to­bog­gan ride, end­ing up in the cav­ity of the brain; and the whole thing is di­dac­ti­cally ef­fec­tive, at least at a rel­a­tively sim­ple level — the tar­get au­di­ence seems to be older chil­dren and grown-ups with no prior knowl­edge of the sub­ject — and un­der­pinned by sound schol­ar­ship and new re­search.

Even so, there is some­thing a bit dis­turb­ing about the as­sump­tions that lie be­hind this kind of pre­sen­ta­tion. At the most ob­vi­ous and gen­eral level, there is the pop­ulist, infotainment as­pect, masked, as just noted, by the qual­ity of the ma­te­rial be­ing pre­sented.

More specif­i­cally, though, a num­ber of ef­fects re­flect the per­va­sive­ness of com­puter games and the way they seem to be chang­ing the man­ner in which peo­ple ex­pect to be ad­dressed, or even the way they think.

Thus mak­ing ob­jects (like the pro­phy­lac­tic amulets in­cluded in the burial) rush to­wards us in 3-D space, on the face of it sim­ply a gim­mick, could have more se­ri­ous im­pli­ca­tions. Au­di­ences, it seems, now ex­pect the im­age to come to them, rather than mak­ing the in­tel­lec­tual and imag­i­na­tive ef­fort of reach­ing out to it. The neu­tral pas­siv­ity of tele­vi­sion has been re­placed with a more ag­gres­sive form of pas­siv­ity dis­guised as in­ter­ac­tiv­ity.

The re­la­tion of sub­ject to ob­ject, or the dis­tinc­tion be­tween these terms, is dis­solved as well — among other things by iso­lat­ing the mo­tif from its con­text, elim­i­nat­ing the ground, float­ing and ro­tat­ing it in a dis­em­bod­ied space — so that in­stead of con­sciously look­ing at some­thing out­side our­selves, we are en­cour-

From the Egyp­tian ex­hi­bi­tion, clock­wise from right, Nes­peren­nub’s car­ton­nage; the mummy of an adult; and lime­stone stela

Con­tin­ued on Page 14

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