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REVIEW: Ancient Lives – New Discoveries at the British Museum

REVIEW: Ancient Lives – New Discoveries at the British Museum

I visited the British Museum to take in Ancient Lives: New Discoveries which runs until November 30th. This spectacular exhibit showcases eight mummies spanning across Ancient Egypt’s four thousand year history from 3500 BC to 700 AD. It features unknown mummies, elite upper class burials, children and naturally embalmed bodies.

The CT scan of the mummy of an adult male (name unknown), showing his mummified remains. © Trustees of the British Museum

Ancient Egyptian Culture

In addition to seeing mummies, there was plenty to learn about Ancient Egyptian culture, diet, religion and family life. Some interesting pieces included a wooden brewery model from the late 11th dynasty demonstrating how the Ancient Egyptians made beer. There were well preserved foods that showed the Ancient Egyptian diet was mainly vegetarian and consisted of fruits and vegetables. Dates, (which were used to sweeten dishes), figs, pomegranates, cucumbers and spring onion were common staples. Meat was a luxury food and only eaten for special occasions.

Another interesting section was devoted to hair and make-up. Ancient Egyptians wore elaborate wigs to indicate high social status. Women’s hair was considered erotic and was often ornately decorated and styled. There were several wigs, combs and make-up jars on display.

Mummy of an adult male (aged 35 to older, name unknown), wrapped in linen bandages. Found at Thebes, 26th dynasty (c. 600 BC). © Trustees of the British MuseumMummification

A few of the most fascinating mummies belonged to children. One of the child mummies was Tjayasetimu, a seven year old temple singer of the Interior of Amun, found buried in an adult sarcophagus. Her remains date from the 22nd dynasty, 800 BC, in Thebes. Children were not often mummified in Ancient Egypt so these mummies are especially rare and intriguing. Temple singers, like Tjayasetimu, often belonged to high status families. There was also a mummy of a two year old Roman period child dating to 40-60 AD. The child belonged to an elite family and was very carefully preserved.

There were items on display used in the mummification procedure, such as tools used to extract the brain through the nose, metal to cover incision sites, and natron to preserve the body. The most interesting pieces in this section were a set of canopic jars with various animals heads depicting the   four sons of Horus who protected the remains placed in the jars. The jars on display at this exhibit belonged to the priestess, Henutmehyt. The Jackal headed jar contained her lungs within another intricate mini casing. Canopic jars were used during the mummification process to store the deceased’s internal organs for their journey to the afterlife. Each jar stored a specific organ.

A mummy undergoing a CT scan at the Royal Brompton Hospital. © Trustees of  the British Museum

Visualisation Technology

One the best features of this exhibit was the interactive technology. Ground breaking high resolution CT scans have enabled Egyptologists and Archaeologists to see mummified bodies without disturbing or harming their delicate remains. Unwrapping mummies is no longer practiced because it damaged the body and distorted crucial evidence. The scans have been transformed into 3D visualisations enabling Archaeologists to see dental trauma, bone injuries, and even bits of food. In some cases, this information can give valuable insight into the probable cause of death. They can also see items that were buried with the deceased and examine the work done by the embalmers during the funerary process.

Each mummy had accompanying large screen visualisations, for example, by simply turning a dial, you can reveal where the amulets were placed on the body of Tamut, a high status priestess of Amun-Ra. Her body was buried in Thebes and dates to the early 22nd dynasty (around 900 BC). She had several amulets strategically placed under her wrappings that were discovered with the aid of CT scan technology.

The scans also stumbled across some curious embalmer’s secrets. In one case, the embalmer left a piece of a tool lodged inside a mummy’s head. The oldest mummy in the collection, an adult male villager from Gebelein from the Predynastic period, showed what appeared to be the remnants of a last meal as well as perfectly preserved internal organs. Lastly, a very curious Roman burial from around 30 AD revealed a few odd practices. The mummy of a man was found with extra padding for breasts and gold leaf placed around parts of his body. These peculiar finds would not have been revealed without the use of this technology.

This was one of my favourite exhibits at the British Museum. It was informative, engaging and compelling. If you happen to be visiting London, it is well worth a visit.

~Sandra Alvarez

The Story of Tamut

Video – Ancient Lives: Scanning Eight Mummies:

For more information about this exhibit, please visit the British Museum website: www.britishmuseum.org

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