The Mummies Are Back, Directly from the Grave

Culture Watch
tags: mummies, Peru, Egypt, New York Museum of Natural History



Bruce Chadwick lectures on history and film at Rutgers University in New Jersey. He also teaches writing at New Jersey City University. He holds his PhD from Rutgers and was a former editor for the New York Daily News. Mr. Chadwick can be reached at bchadwick@njcu.edu.

 Mummies. Everybody has seen them in the movies, from the silent era through today. There was The Mummy, made in 1925 and the subject of not one, but two sequels in later years. There was The Mummy’s Tomb, The Mummy’s Hand, The Mummy’s Shroud, Curse of the Mummy’s Tomb, Abbott and Costello Meet the Mummy and even Bubba Ho Tep (2003), in which the mummy of Elvis Presley is living in an East Texas rest home. They were billed as killers and thugs and the mummy in The Curse of the Mummy’s Tomb was tagged by publicity shrills as “half bone and half bandage.”

They walked around, in ether black and white or color films, arms straight out, howling loud enough to scare everybody in the theater, murdering archaeologists, chasing women or charging about the screen, bandages flying, choking people to the delight of audiences.

The New York Museum of Natural History on Central Park West was always famous for its North American animal dioramas, huge blue whales and startling dinosaur skeletons. Pretty good. But now the museum is alive (well, wrong choice of word) with mummies.

Mummies, the museum’s colorful and simply splendid new exhibit, that just opened, is a sprawling tribute to the mummies of Egypt and Peru. We know all about the mummies of Egypt, of course, but Peru. Whew!

The exhibit, quite glorious and quite scary at the same time, jammed with curiosity seekers when I visited, has two goals. One is to tell the stories of the mummies themselves. The other is to show how scientists have examined mummies over the last two hundred years and have developed very scientific techniques that enable them to look under the cloth bundles around them into the lives of the mummies.

“Mummies have long been fascinating, and now the intersection of these ancient relics and cutting edge technology is revealing new and intriguing secrets,” said museum president Ellen Futter in a statement. “For generations, the museum has studied and presented the diverse cultures of humanity, past and present, to help us better understand one another and ourselves. Today, when such understanding is more important than ever, Mummies invites us all to consider both what may be distinct among cultures and what is universal in the human condition.”

Scientists first examined mummies back in the 1840s in series of photographs. In 1898 they were able to do their work with x-ray machines and then, in 1977, came the big breakthrough. Beginning in that year scientists could look at mummies with computerized tomography (CT) scans and take hundreds of pictures of them at the same time. The ability of scientists to do that helped them to unravel the story of the old mummies as well as the bandages that were wrapped around them over 7,000 years ago in Peru and 5,500 years ago in Egypt.

The dead were mummified to preserve their bodies until they could travel to an afterlife, or spirit world. Old and young men were mummified, as were women of different ages. In ancient times numerous children died in childbirth, sometimes along with their mothers. Mom and child were not only buried together, but mummified together, too (there are x-ray photos of them in the exhibit).

One docent (historian) at the museum surprised numerous visitors to the exhibit when she explained the double mummification and burial, but really stunned them when she told them that many of the dead were mummified and buried in crouching positions so that years later their relatives could unearth them and carry them to street festivals and sit them on chairs so they could enjoy the festivities.

“People in the past had strange customs,” she said. “When an Emperor in Peru died, he was mummified and buried, but the new Emperor, out of respect, would not live in his palace. He had to build his own palace and when he died and was mummified, Emperor number three had to build a third palace and await his mummification.”

She added that Spanish soldiers would honor the mummies they found, and then steal their gold.

How did mummification work? In Egypt, a dead man or woman would have their blood drained, be embalmed and have their organs removed (many had them placed in a large stone jar so they could be put back in when they arrived in the nether world). The body would be soaked in salt for forty days. Oils, resins and padding would be used to fill out the corpse. It would then be wrapped with strips of cloth, but only after treasures from the deceased’s life, such as a piece of woven cloth for a woman or tool or even a musical instrument for a man, were enclosed under the bandages. The wrapped-up body would then be wrapped a second time, arms crossed over the chest. If the dead was an important person, he would be put into a wood coffin and then slipped into a stone sarcophagus, which was then completely covered in sand, usually ninety feet under the ground for protection from grave robbers. If he was a Pharoah, he would be buried inside a tomb within a pyramid.

In Peru, mummification was different. There, the skin was removed and the body was re-enforced with reeds and clay. The skin was then put back on the corpse and it was wrapped as it was in Egypt.

One of the saddest things to see in the exhibit were a pair of three or four year old children who had died and were mummified in tiny wrappings. One of the oddest parts of the exhibit was a photo of a mummified cat.

The wealthy were buried in style, but the working class and poor were just buried in the sand in large meadows. Oddly enough, the arid climates of Peru and Egypt, and the dry sand, served to keep the body even better than the sarcophaguses of the rich. Many family members were mummified and buried together; the mummies of the poor were often tossed down into pits.

The rich mummies in the coffins, many of which are on display, are beautiful because of the coffin carvings. Rich people also had 365 objects placed in their tomb, one for each day of the year, for them to use in the spirit world. The objects were meant to explain to all the life that the deceased lived on earth.

And if all of this is not macabre enough for you, there is a table full skulls that are quite old. Many of the mummies, rich and poor, were put in ancient cemeteries with elegantly carved tombstones above their final resting places. Several of them are in the exhibit.

There are 18 mummies in the exhibit, all on loan from the Fields Museum in Chicago.

Scientists who study mummies can tell how they died. In most cases these were by disease or heart failure, but in some they died violent deaths from beatings or in some instances were murdered. Many claim that King Tut was slain.

So, if you want to spend a bizarre but entertaining day or night, visit the museum. It will be an interesting way to spend a few hours in your life, or, in this case, death.

The exhibit will be open through January 7, 2018.




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