Behind the Scenes: Mummies: New Secrets from the Tombs

dmns mummies secrets tombs exhibitI had a rare opportunity to go behind the scenes at the Denver Museum of Nature & Science‘s upcoming Mummies: New Secrets from the Tombs exhibit this morning. Through a wonderful coincidence of timing, the tour not include Michele Koons, DMNS Curator of the new exhibit but both JP Brown and Dr. Ryan Williams from the Field Museum in Chicago too, the two people who conceived and created the exhibit based around Field Museum Egyptian and Peruvian mummies. It was like heading into the theater to see the latest blockbuster just to find you’re going to be hanging out with the lead actors too!

The great benefit of this was that I had a chance to hear about the challenges that the Field Museum team faced when creating the exhibit and learn about how the revolution of 3D printing offers some excellent hands-on opportunities when these sort of exhibits historically have been focused on having everything hermetically sealed behind glass. They also shared some of the politics of working in the area of world history and cultural identity, but I’ll come back to that topic when we get to those photos.

To start, the inspiration for the entire exhibit came from a CAT scan of one of the mummies in the Field Museum collection. JP had the scan, but how to present it? How to get people excited about the opportunities that these sort of technologies offer for non-destructive peeks behind and underneath the funereal shroud and wraps? As computer visualization kept improving, it became clear that there were ways to show reproductions and scans in ways that are highly informative and engaging.

In fact, near the end is a display with a sign labeled Traces of the Embalmer that includes a color image of a mummy skull with a facial profile superimposed. That’s the original image that inspired Brown:

traces of the embalmer, mummies secrets from the tombs exhibit, dmns

The very first thing you see coming into the exhibit, however, is a CAT (computer-aided tomography) scanner, a GE unit that has enabled this huge leap forward in archeology and artifact analysis:

cat scanner, mummies, egyptian tombs denver museum nature science

The mummy on the scanner is a model of the one that came out of one of the elaborately painted Egyptian coffins later in the exhibit:

painted egyptian coffin mummy mummies denver museum nature science

But I get ahead of myself!

The Mummies: New Secrets from the Tombs exhibit is broken into two primary geographic regions: Peru and Egypt. As it turns out, the Peruvians were mummifying their revered dead way before the Egyptians were inspired to do the same, and thousands of years ago they were both busy eviscerating and preparing their dead for the journey into the afterlife. Even if it was slightly different afterlives their spirits were headed towards in the two different regions.

The Peruvians had various customs, but a common one was to bury a family in a modest tomb, a Burial Pit, just below the surface, as shown in this remarkable re-creation:

peruvian funeral tomb recreation, denver museum nature & science

Peruvians had elaborate funeral rituals that included some form of mummification for over 6000 years (partially because of how extraordinarily dry the climate is, many bodies naturally mummified without any intervention required). The re-creation above mimics a funeral pit burial from between the 11th and 15th century.

The Peruvians also had rather peculiar skulls with holes drilled in them whose meaning is contested in the archeological world. Koons and Williams didn’t quite agree either, and apparently some scientists are still convinced that they are indeed war trophies, though you wouldn’t get that from the sign they have associated with the skull:

peruvian peru trophy skulls

I should note that I include no photos of actually bodies or human remains. In respect for the dead, the Field Museum and the Denver Museum of Nature and Science both request that those not be photographed, as explained when visitors first arrive to the exhibit space. It’s a facet of research ethics that I appreciate and it’s a sure bet that the family that paid to have a beloved parent or relative mummified and buried would ever have imagined that some day those remains would be in a museum, on display.

Interestingly, many of the bodies mummified had the head tucked into the body cavity and a sort of “fake head” affixed in the burial chamber or pit. Some of those remain, haunting glimpses of another culture:

mask, peruvian mummy

This false head is from the Yschma culture and is dated circa 1100AD.

One of the other mummies shown is from a child who died of unknown causes. The CAT scans actually show baby teeth, dating the child to pre-adolescence. Wrapped up and buried with the child’s body were various other objects, including a couple of dolls that have been scanned separately and reproduced with 3D printers so people can touch them:

dolls buried with bodies, peru peruvian mummy

A bit of insider info: these sort of objects get grimy and filthy and the Field Museum team actually has replacement items to replace those on display approximately monthly. Think about that if you’re a bit of a germaphobe. Yikes.

What’s interesting is that these same small figurines show up in the Egyptian mummies too, and that the journey of Egyptian mummification can almost be captured purely by the evolution of the Sons of Horus. But let’s transition from Peru to Egypt…

peru to egypt, field museum mummies beyond tomb denver museum nature science dmns

You wouldn’t think it, but the two countries have quite similar climates, notably very, very low humidity. Inspiration for the mummification process? Some scientists think so…

If you’re like me, you’re more familiar with the Egyptian mummification process and rituals, but here’s something that will surprise you: Unlike in the movies, there’s absolutely no indication that family members or servants were every killed and added to a tomb. Even those buried deep below the surface, as reproduced in Mummies: New Secrets from the Tombs:

egyptian mummy tomb

JP explained that building this reproduction is the trickiest part of the entire installation and that just getting the curved wall portion to work properly is a few days work. Appreciate that when you walk through, and imagine that you’re 90-feet below the surface of the Egyptian sun-baked surface too, because that’s how far down this was originally found.

Since the Egyptians had so many Gods that they worshipped, their tombs included mummified animals, from cats to baboons, jackals to cows. And this one, a mummified baby crocodile from the Ptolemaic period, 332BC – 395AD:

mummified crocodile

Really fascinating stuff, and current thinking is that none of these were pets, but were instead all offerings to the Gods.

And more 3D printed figurines, this time the Sons of Horus, as explained:

sons of horus figurines, egyptian tombs

There’s lots more to this exhibit that makes it well worth a visit. It’s fascinating to see the rituals and superstitions that surround death and to consider how many of them have survived to this day. Oh, and though there’s no sign to explain why the process of mummification ended in Egyptian, and then Peruvian culture, the scientists shared with me that it was all about the coming of Christianity to the region. For a very, very short period there was an overlap and there are some mummies that include Christian iconography, but none is included in this exhibit.

And the politics I mentioned earlier? Well, when you can produce a 3D scan of a skull and then seek to reproduce the person’s face, you get into questions of skin tone. As a general rule, the further south scientists go, the darker skinned the individual, but I was told that there was much politics surrounding the skin tones of the likenesses on display. On one side were the Field Museum scientists who analyzed average and typical skin tone for the region where the skeleton was recovered, and on the other side was the Egyptian government agencies who sought lighter skin tones, not the darker ones that are shown. Yes, even with archeological exhibits it’s impossible to completely sidestep politics.

Something to consider when you walk through this terrific exhibit, one that’s perhaps more skewed to an older, more scientifically engaged audience than a typical hands-on kids special exhibit. There are some terrific hands-on interactive computer displays to help keep the young ‘uns engaged!

Mummies: New Secrets from The Tombs exhibit opens Oct 14, 2016 at the Denver Museum of Nature & Science — separate ticket purchase required — and will only be in Denver thru February 5, 2017, so don’t miss it!

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