Fascinating Mummies

April 24, 2012


24 April 2012

Have you been to see the ‘Fascinating Mummies’ exhibition at the National Museum of Scotland yet? If not, you definitely should, as it does what it says on the tin – it’s fascinating! The exhibition brings together objects from the museum’s own collections with world famous Egyptology collections of the National Museum of Antiquities in Leiden to tell the story of the Ancient Egyptians belief in the afterlife. On entering the exhibition, the scene is immediately set with a beautifully ornate coffin, alongside a general introduction to the fascinating Ancient Egyptian beliefs of post mortem transition and life everlasting. There’s also a map of the Nile area showing key sites and cities associated with the exhibition.

The light levels in the exhibition are relatively low to protect the artefacts, but this only adds to the Egyptian tomb-like atmosphere, though the canvas hangings and hieroglyphic prints also do their bit. As you walk through a canvas tunnel towards a bronze statue of Osiris, god of resurrection and afterlife, you follow a timeline of the history of mummification and the development of graves and tombs. Did you know that the earliest form of mummification occurred when bodies were buried in arid desert sands, until the Egyptians introduced and perfected artificial preservation in the highly sophisticated process that we now think of as mummification.

The stages of this fascinating embalming process are then elaborated on, from washing the body, removing the organs into canopic jars and weighing the heart against an ostrich feather, to dehydrating the body, wrapping it in linen, and dressing it for eternity with jewellery, protective amulets, masks and full body cartonage. There are more beautiful coffins on display, and you’re also introduced to your first mummy, whilst children can assemble a giant mummy puzzle on a replica embalming table. Following on from that, you are introduced to the set-up of a tomb, including typical tomb furnishings such as headrests and stools; items to aide the deceased in the afterlife, such as cups, dishes and examples of food, combs, mirrors and jewellery for beauty; statues of gods, servants or the deceased themselves; and a chapel with offering tables and commemorative stone tablets.

Moving into more recent times, another timeline lets you travel through the history of Egyptology, from the first mummies brought back as souvenirs by European travellers in the 15th century; to the decyphering of hieroglyphs, the first use of x-rays and public mummy unwrappings in the 19th century; to the ‘Egyptomania’ following the discovery of Tutankhamun’s tomb and the first mummy CT scan in the 20th century. The modern developments give a fascinating insight into how the study of mummies has been revolutionised. No longer do they need to be unwrapped – a very invasive and destructive process – as CT scans make it possible to see e.g. the amulets placed between the bandages, or even create a 3D reconstruction of the body telling us details such as age, height, ethnic descent, dental history and skeletal health. 

As a fascinating and fun aside, there’s also a display about animal mummies, although these were indeed no joke to the Egyptians. All kinds of animals, including cats, ibis, crocodiles and falcons, were mummified to accompany their owner into the afterlife or for religious purposes. Though interestingly, x-rays and scans revealed some of the animal mummies as fakes, containing unidentified organic material or linen padding instead of the expected skeletons inside. Children may also enjoy mummifying a cat via the touchscreen interactive.

The final section of the exhibition, and undoubtedly the highlight, is the exhibit on the fascinating  life and death of Ankhor, Priest of Montu and Lord of Thebes, with its complete set of the original intact mummy alongside the inner, middle and outer coffins, which you can explore in more detail via a touchscreen. The exhibit brings all the previous strands of the exhibition together by examining what hieroglyphs, traditional archeology, and scientific technology can all tell us. An extract from the documentary “Trail of the Mummy” gives further insight into Ankhor’s past.

You may think I’ve used the word “fascinating” too many times in this article, but I would say it’s still not enough to convey how fascinating this exhibition really is. It’s showing until 27 May so you have one month left to go and see it – don’t miss out!


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Photographs taken with kind permission by the National Museum of Scotland.

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