Manitoba Mu­seum ex­hi­bi­tion ex­plores our fas­ci­na­tion with an­cient body preser­va­tion

Winnipeg Free Press - Section G - - FRONT PAGE - KEVIN PROKOSH

THE hi­ero­glyph­ics that ap­pear along the sides of the 2,300-yearold cof­fin iden­tify the per­son in it as Pesed and in­cludes a gro­cery list of the foods and beer she will need to get her through the af­ter­life.

Lady Pesed Ma Rheres, sin­gle daugh­ter of Heshor, a high-rank­ing pri­est of Khem and his wife Lady Urt, was a VIP when she lived and even in death is still a celebrity in the tour­ing ex­hi­bi­tion called Wrapped: The Mummy of Pesed, which opened Fri­day at the Manitoba Mu­seum.

The dis­play case that con­tains the linen-wrapped body of Pesed, who lived dur­ing the time of Alexan­der the Great, is the fo­cus of the show that at­tempts to ex­plore our en­dur­ing fas­ci­na­tion with mum­mies since they were first un­earthed in Egypt in the 19th cen­tury.

Wrapped’s Amer­i­can cu­ra­tor, Johnathan Elias, has been one of those life-long devo­tees, hooked since he was a grade-schooler and no­ticed he re­sem­bled the mask of the boy king Tu­tankhamun. He be­came a prom­i­nent and en­thu­si­as­tic Egyp­tol­o­gist and di­rec­tor of the Akhmim Mummy Con­sor­tium in Car­lyle, Pa. His group CT scans mum­mies from Akhmim — a large city in south­ern Egypt — where Pesed lived from about 340-275 BC. Since he first sub­jected her to com­puted to­mog- ra­phy scan­ning a dozen years ago, the 55-year-old Elias feels like he al­most knows her.

“Pesed is a won­der­ful per­son,” says Elias, look­ing down on the mummy dur­ing an in­ter­view at the mu­seum this week. “By the CT data we know that she reached an ad­vanced age for her so­ci­ety of about 70. She was a sur­vivor. From her mus­cu­la­ture we can tell her legs were strong. She must have been a walker, per­haps an ath­letic per­son or a dancer like her mother in the tem­ple.”

His CT scans tell a story about th­ese high-sta­tion peo­ple. In an­cient Egypt the poor were buried in the sand and their bod­ies to­tally de­com­posed within two years while the rich were pre­served, sup­pos­edly for­ever, in a tomb.

They were the sub­ject of the ex­pen­sive process of pre­serv­ing their bod­ies — the soft tis­sue is now more like beef jerky in tex­ture, says Elias — for the af­ter­life. Amulets or mag­i­cal to­kens were wrapped with the bod­ies to pro­tect or of­fer ben­e­fi­cial ef­fect. Based on the amulets placed with Pesed, her death was caused by some­thing to do with her left side.

The idea be­hind mum­mi­fi­ca­tion was to pre­serve the body by re­mov­ing all mois­ture un­til the soul, sep­a­rated at death, re­turned to com­plete res­ur­rec­tion. In or­der to at­tract the soul to re­turn, the body needed fu­ne­real of­fer­ings by the liv­ing.

“Some­times those lists were long with a hun­dred items on them, spec­i­fy­ing six types of beer,” says Elias, who can read hi­ero­glyphs. “Beer al­ways came sec­ond on the list af­ter bread. Egyp­tians saw beer as holy.”

Even to­day, Elias says Win­nipeg­gers don’t need to lit­er­ally bring Pesed a six-pack of Lucky for her to en­joy a leisurely quaff.

“In the Egyp­tian magic sense all any­one has to do is say beer and it will be given to her,” he says.

Wrapped also fea­tures the mum­mies of a kit­ten, two hawks and a baby croc­o­dile. It is no­table for the largest col­lec­tion of foren­sic sculp­tures of an­cient Egyp­tians amassed in one place. There are more than a dozen foren­sic portraits, in­clud­ing one of Pesed, as well as the largest as­sem­blage of mod­ern com­puter-gen­er­ated 3D prints. Elias worked with Univer­sity of Manitoba pro­fes­sor Robert Hoppa on the dig­i­tal imaging.

“Noth­ing ri­vals scan­ning a mummy,” says Elias, who earned his doc­tor­ate at the Univer­sity of Chicago. “You think go­ing to Egypt to ex­ca­vate that you will find a trea­sure in 10 min­utes. It is hard, back-break­ing work and even if you can avoid the sun or the flies, dysen­tery will get you — there is no es­cape. With CT-scan­ning you avoid all that but get all the Egyp­tol­ogy you want.”

The sculp­ture of what Pesed might have looked like was cre­ated by Amer­i­can foren­sic artist Frank Ben­der, fa­mous for his fa­cial re­con­struc­tions of the dead that helped po­lice to solve some of the most baf­fling homi­cides south of the bor­der.

West­min­ster Col­lege has been Pesed’s home since 1885 when grad­u­ate Rev. John Gif­fen, a mis­sion­ary, do­nated the mummy he had bought for $5. Those were the days when Egypt was cash-strapped and mum­mies could be bought from street ven­dors.

Wealthy trav­ellers took them home as sou­venirs and in up­per-crust Vic­to­rian Eng­land it be­came a fad to host un­rolling par­ties that were part lurid spec­ta­cle, part sci­en­tific in­ves­ti­ga­tion. In­vi­ta­tions were sent to in­ven­tors, physi­cians and visionaries call­ing on them to con­vene at half-past two to wit­ness the un­wrap­ping of a mummy, per­haps pur­chased at an an­tiq­ui­ties auc­tion.

“They’d gather like at Down­ton Abbey,” says Elias com­par­ing it to the high-class set­ting of the PBS se­ries. “If Lord Gran­than had any sci­ence in­ter­est, he’d be host­ing one of those par­ties.”

Mum­mies have lived in lit­er­a­ture from the time, in­clud­ing Sir Arthur Co­nan Doyle’s 1892 short story Lot No. 249, in which a stu­dent re-an­i­mates a mummy to at­tack his en­e­mies. A copy is part of the ex­hi­bi­tion.

Pesed’s time at an in­sti­tu­tion of higher ed­u­ca­tion was not as peace­ful as her first cou­ple of thou­sand years in the af­ter­life. Her head was un­wrapped some­time in the late 1800s or early 20th cen­tury by un­known peo­ple and the graf­fiti found on the in­side of the cof­fin cover sug­gests she was not al­ways at rest.

“Pesed was the ob­ject of col­lege hi­jinks.” Elias says. “We know that her body was taken out of the cof­fin and used as a danc­ing part­ner. Her an­kles are bro­ken from that treat­ment, abuse re­ally.”

She suf­fered other in­dig­ni­ties by lo­cal frat pranksters who would sur­prise co-eds by slip­ping her into their beds to await the screams of horror.

What­ever swear­ing that might have spewed from her vic­tims still could not be as­so­ci­ated to the curse of the mummy.

“You hear a lot about that, but there is no curse that I am aware of,” Elias says. “There are in­scrip­tions that say, ‘do not for­get my name or else,’ but none that say, ‘he who owns this tomb will be de­stroyed.’ It may have oc­curred but it is rare.”


Wrapped’s cu­ra­tor, Jonathan Elias, next to Pesed, a woman be­tween the ages of 50 and 70 born 2,300 years ago.

A dis­play of a child mummy from Ro­man times is part of the ex­hi­bi­tion.

An artist has recre­ated the tex­ture and pos­ture of a body placed in the fe­tal po­si­tion in a shal­low grave, where warmed by the sun’s heat, it would dry out nat­u­rally.

A life-size com­puter-gen­er­ated

sculp­ture of a mummy.

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