At a new Syd­ney ex­hi­bi­tion, tech­nol­ogy al­lows us to look through the an­cient cov­er­ing at the Egyp­tian in­di­vid­u­als in­side, writes Jane Corn­well

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Feature - Egyp­tian Mum­mies: Ex­plor­ing An­cient Lives

Nestawed­jat. Try say­ing her name out loud. Roll the syl­la­bles around on your tongue: Nest-a-wed­jat. She might be old — like, 2500 years old — and swad­dled in mot­tled yel­low-brown ban­dages but she was once a real per­son like you and me. Mar­ried, wealthy, just over 153cm tall, Nestawed­jat lived east of the Nile in Thebes, now Luxor, then the most bling­ing city in an­cient Egypt. For a long time, un­der wraps, she was thought to be a man. Thanks to the lat­est non-in­va­sive CT tech­nol­ogy we know all this with­out hav­ing to crack open Nestawed­jat’s cara­pace or dis­turb her eter­nal slum­ber — a care­fully reg­u­lated re­turn flight from Lon­don to Syd­ney not­with­stand­ing. Along with five other mum­mies from the col­lec­tion at the Bri­tish Mu­seum, all of whom lived in Egypt be­tween 1800 and 3000 years ago, Nestawed­jat stars in the world pre­miere of Egyp­tian Mum­mies: Ex­plor­ing An­cient Lives at Syd­ney’s Pow­er­house Mu­seum. While the ex­hi­bi­tion is un­der­pinned by sci­ence, by de­tailed and un­prece­dented anal­y­sis of what lies be­neath the coffins and ban­dages, the mum­mies as in­di­vid­u­als, not as ob­jects, are the main fo­cus. The Bri­tish Mu­seum took a sim­i­lar tack in 2014 with its pop­u­lar smaller ex­hi­bi­tion, An­cient Lives, New Dis­cov­er­ies: Eight Mum­mies, Eight Sto­ries. Vis­i­tors who poured through the Greek re­vival-style en­trance of this long-time Lon­don land­mark (founded in 1753 un­der En­light­en­ment prin­ci­ples) were in­formed that “the mu­seum is com­mit­ted to car­ing for hu­man re­mains with re­spect and dig­nity”. Daniel An­toine, the cu­ra­tor of phys­i­cal an­thro­pol­ogy with re­spon­si­bil­ity for the Bri­tish Mu­seum’s hu­man re­mains, and one of the peo­ple be­hind both ex­hi­bi­tions, nods vig­or­ously. “We are very aware of the im­por­tance of pre­serv­ing the col­lec­tion,” says this suave French doc­tor of arche­ol­ogy, who has met me by the in­for­ma­tion desk in the mu­seum’s cav­ernous in­ner court­yard and led the way up a pri­vate spi­ral stair­case to the first floor of­fices he shares with col­league Marie Van­den­beusch, a project cu­ra­tor in the de­part­ment of an­cient Egypt and Su­dan. “We want these mum­mies to be around for a thou­sand more years,” An­toine con­tin­ues. “We’re lucky that none of our pre­de­ces­sors de­cided to un­wrap our mum­mies; it would be so easy to mis­place wrap­pings and ob­jects un­less you record ev­ery­thing ex­tremely care­fully.” It’s a del­i­cate topic. While the mum­mies in the mu­seum’s col­lec­tion were all legally ac­quired in the 19th cen­tury by the likes of English Egyp­tol­o­gist EA Wal­lis Budge, they were pur­chased dur­ing the time of em­pire. Be­sides, doc­u­ments were lost and coffins swapped: “In the 19th cen­tury and even in an­cient times the best pre­served mummy was of­ten put into the best pre­served cof­fin,” sighs the Swiss-born Van­den­beusch. “We’ve done a lot of dou­ble-check­ing.” As vis­i­tors to the Pow­er­house will dis­cover, to­day we can dress and un­dress Nestawed­jat and her fel­low trav­ellers Ta­mut (a fe­male tem­ple singer from Thebes) and Irthorru (a den­tally chal­lenged Car­ton­nage case con­tain­ing Ta­mut’s mummy, main; the mummy of a young man from Egypt dur­ing the Ro­man era, left priest from nearby Akhmim) with the scroll of a but­ton. Take Ta­mut: a vir­tual zoom through her gold, red and blue car­ton­nage case re­veals a woman who, be­ing bald, wore a wig, has pro­tec­tive amulets placed on her skin — a winged metal de­ity at her throat, stones over her eyes to help to see in the af­ter­life — and four wax fig­urines, each con­tain­ing an or­gan, buried in­side her chest cav­ity. Her nails are cov­ered with thin lay­ers of metal, prob­a­bly gold. An­other zoom, a peel­ing back of the skin, and we see cal­ci­fied plaque in Ta­mut’s right thigh bone; like too many peo­ple in the mod­ern world, Ta­mut suf­fered from high choles­terol.

“Ta­mut is fan­tas­ti­cally pre­served,” An­toine en­thuses. “She pro­vides us with many in­sights about what it would be like to live in that pe­riod, both from a re­li­gious point of view and also a bi­o­log­i­cal one. We’re build­ing a greater idea of car­dio­vas­cu­lar dis­ease in an­tiq­uity; it seems to have been par­tic­u­larly preva­lent among the wealthy of the Nile val­ley, or at least in those who could af­ford mum­mi­fi­ca­tion.”

One floor above us, most of the mu­seum’s 120 mum­mies are on per­ma­nent dis­play (mi­nus the six en route to Aus­tralia), along with their coffins and other tomb arte­facts. So too is a de­scrip­tion of mum­mi­fi­ca­tion by the Greek his­to­rian Herodotus, who records that this heav­ily rit­u­alised process took 70 days, and in­volved re­mov­ing per­ish­able or­gans, which were then dried, wrapped and ei­ther placed in canopic jars or back in­side the salt-dried body. The brain was re­moved through the nose with a hook.

In 2012 the mu­seum pre­miered its vir­tual au­topsy ta­ble, a med­i­cal vi­su­al­i­sa­tion tool that al­lowed vis­i­tors to ex­plore the “nat­u­ral” mummy known as Ge­belein Man, who was buried in a dry, sandy ceme­tery in Up­per Egypt with his knees drawn up to his chest and a deep stab wound in his back. The pop­u­lar suc­cess of the ta­ble — “It is in use 95 per cent of the time” — led to the cre­ation of 2014 ex­hi­bi­tion and now, with dif­fer­ent mum­mies and su­pe­rior scan­ning tech­nol­ogy af­forded by Lon­don’s Royal Bromp­ton Hospi­tal, to Egyp­tian Mum­mies: Ex­plor­ing An­cient Lives.

“For Syd­ney we used dual-en­ergy CT scan­ners, or two X-ray ma­chines on dif­fer­ent set­tings that bom­barded ev­ery part of the mummy,” An­toine says. “We’ve cap­tured the tex­ture of the skin and thicker ar­eas such as bones and ob­jects made of stone. And we’re us­ing the sort of soft­ware For­mula One might use to scan an en­gine’s brake pads, so they can see what is hap­pen­ing in­side.”

Pro­cess­ing the re­sult­ing data in­volves in­ten­sive work: “Marie and I and a col­league in Paris sat down for thou­sands of hours so we could get as close to the truth as sci­ence al­lows us to get. We will never de­ceive the viewer,” he says. “A process called seg­men­ta­tion al­lows us to ‘re­move’ ob­jects and put them in a 3-D prin­ter, so we can then hold in our hands ex­act repli­cas of what are still on the bod­ies of the mum­mies. All with­out ever hav­ing to un­wrap them.”

A far cry, then, from the early 20th cen­tury, when Egyp­tol­ogy was a new aca­demic dis­ci­pline and pub­lic “un­rollings” were all the rage. Fetch­ing an old ex­hi­bi­tion cat­a­logue, Van­den­beusch shows me a black-and-white pho­to­graph taken in 1908 at the Manch­ester Mu­seum of sev­eral schol­ars stand­ing over the skele­ton of a freshly un­rav­elled mummy: a 12th-dy­nasty man named Kh­num-Nakht. More than 500 peo­ple had gath­ered to watch pi­o­neer­ing arche­ol­o­gist Mar­garet Mur­ray re­veal his mys­ter­ies; Mur­ray and her team look tri­umphant. Kh­num-Nakht seems vul­ner­a­ble, ex­posed.

No an­cient Egyp­tians would be harmed in this way to­day. So did Mur­ray suf­fer any su­per­nat­u­ral wrath? Did any­one in­volved fall prey to the mummy’s curse, as whipped up by Howard Carter’s 1922 dis­cov­ery of King Tu­tankhamun’s tomb and drama­tised by Boris Karloff in the 1932 film The Mummy? An­toine and Van­den­beusch roll their eyes.

It was Ro­man, not Egyp­tian, mum­mies who had their arms wrapped sep­a­rately (all the bet­ter for com­ing back to life and grab­bing you with), An­toine tells me later. For now both cu­ra­tors re­it­er­ate the due care taken with their charges: data is pre­sented, not in­ter­preted, they say.

“We don’t do fa­cial rep­re­sen­ta­tions,” An­toine adds. “We are cre­at­ing vi­su­al­i­sa­tions of what is un­derneath the wrap­ping, in­clud­ing the em­balmer’s re­con­struc­tive pad­ding of lips, nose and cheeks. The em­balm­ing varies, of course. “Each em­balmer had their own style.”

The mum­mies, largely un­touched, are treated as pre­cious cargo; the trucks that took them to the hospi­tal to be scanned were fit­ted with air sus­pen­sion. The team that brought them to Aus­tralia is highly trained in pack­ing and trans­porta­tion. Both cu­ra­tors are de­lighted the ex­hi­bi­tion space in Syd­ney can ac­com­mo­date the large coffins and sev­eral stat­ues, along with 200 ob­jects ex­plor­ing themes such as gods, god­desses, health, medicine and child­hood (one of the mum­mies is two-year-old boy from the Ro­man pe­riod, wrapped in­side a gilded car­ton­nage).

Nei­ther An­toine or Van­den­beusch wishes to com­ment on the con­tro­versy sur­round­ing the Pow­er­house Mu­seum’s mooted move from Ul­timo to Par­ra­matta in western Syd­ney. The ini­tia­tive is the sub­ject of a par­lia­men­tary in­quiry. As long as the mum­mies are han­dled with care, ap­proached with re­spect and re­garded as in­di­vid­u­als, it ar­guably doesn’t matter what side of Syd­ney they oc­cupy.

Nestawed­jat has come into her own, rest­ing in her cor­rect cof­fin af­ter some foren­sic CSIstyle sleuthing from Van­den­beusch (“There were three coffins with her name on them, but the in­ner cof­fin clos­est to her had a black stain which matched the sub­stance on her shoul­der”), and re­as­signed her cor­rect gen­der.

“When the mum­mies in the col­lec­tion were X-rayed back in the 1960s it was thought that this was the mummy of a man,” says Van­den­beusch. “It was only af­ter the CT scan was done” — and the em­balmer’s ex­tra pad­ding re­vealed — “that An­toine re­alised Nestawed­jat was ac­tu­ally a woman.”

An­toine flashes a grin. “It’s a priv­i­lege to be able to stare in the face of the dis­tant past. I’m al­ways re­minded that these are the re­mains of a per­son who once lived and had fam­ily and friends and took part in com­mu­nity ac­tiv­i­ties,” he says. “Their name, if we know it, is so im­por­tant. It is im­por­tant for them.

“By re­peat­ing the name of Nestawed­jat, we are help­ing her live for­ever.” runs un­til April 25 at Syd­ney’s Pow­er­house Mu­seum.

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