Mummy’s the word at National Museum

The CT scan of Ankhhor's mummified corpse
The CT scan of Ankhhor's mummified corpse
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MUMMIFICATION. A gory process best avoided by the squeamish. It wasn’t just the deftness of hand needed to extract a brain through the nostrils, but the strength of stomach required to remove internal organs via the smallest of incisions, thus allowing them to be stored in canopic jars, ready for the journey into the afterlife.

Both skills would have been familiar to the embalmers of ancient Egypt, who lived under the pharaohs, in the shadows of the Sphinx and the pyramids. Today, tales of their lost civilisation continue to intrigue and enthral. Nothing, however, piques our curiosity quite as much as the handiwork of these embalmers; the mummy, the last earthly remains of someone who perhaps walked the golden sands of the Valley of the Kings or prayed in a temple now nothing more than a fading footprint on the surface of the planet.

Sensaos' shroud

Sensaos' shroud

Ankhhor was one such person. A priest serving in the temple of the god Montu in Thebes, modern Luxor, around 650 BC. His preserved remains are the centrepiece of a new exhibition coming to the National Museum of Scotland, and give a tantalising insight into his life and times.

“To know about this chap, who was wealthy enough to be buried in a particular manner but who wasn’t famous, is incredible,’ says National Museums Scotland exhibition officer Maureen Barrie, the woman responsible for Fascinating Mummies, which opens on February 11.

“Ankhhor lived 650 years before Christ and for me, just to know that he was a priest, and that he was married, as well as his daily routine, is fantastic.”

The first major exhibition in the Chambers Street museum’s new purpose-built exhibition space, Fascinating Mummies, may boast Ankhhor’s remains at its heart, but he is only one of many treasures, the oldest of which dates back to 4000BC, drawn from the collections of the National Museum of Antiquities in Leiden, Holland, and the NMS that will be on display, guiding visitors through the complex rituals surrounding death and afterlife in ancient Egypt, including mummification and burial.

A queen buried at Qurneh

A queen buried at Qurneh

“Unlike other mummies, Ankhhor was never unwrapped,” explains Maureen. “Instead, scientists used a CT scan to build a picture of him – his age, health and how he was mummified.

“In doing so, they also uncovered amulets and possessions concealed between his wrappings. Added with the information gleaned from the hieroglyphs on his three coffins, all of which feature in the exhibition, it has allowed a surprising amount of his story to be told, despite the fact that he lived so long ago.”

The result of that CT scan can be studied in depth in the the first part of the exhibition which centres on the complex rituals surrounding death and the afterlife in ancient Egyptians.

It explores the concept of dying only to be born again, all of which required the body to be preserved so that it could act as the earthly anchor for the spirit.

The second section charts the scientific advances that have allowed archaeologists to take on the mantle of forensic scientists, reopening the oldest cold cases in history with the help of state-of-the-art X-rays, CT scans, DNA profiling and facial reconstruction.

“In the past, when people unwrapped mummies it did irreparable damage, so much information was lost,” says Maureen. “Sometimes it was done as a public spectacle, a public unwrapping, other times it was scientific research – either way, the techniques used destroyed a lot of evidence. However, we are fortunate to have these mummies that have been preserved and not unwrapped.

“Now, to be able to see beneath the layers is fabulous, and in the science section of the exhibition there are several different case studies using different techniques, including a facial reconstruction of one of the Leiden mummies, which has allowed us to show what this person from the past looked like.”

Sensaos, the mummy that underwent facial reconstruction, had a shroud placed over her – and it seems some things never change.

Maureen says, “The facial reconstruction revealed that, just as today, people are very conscious about how they look. In death, Egyptians always wanted to look their best so their appearance didn’t always physically match that depicted on the shroud. There would be a bit of cosmetic licence.”

A highlight on permanent display in the museum from the NMS’s own collections, which feature thousands of objects from ancient Egypt, is a burial group from Qurneh. Excavated by the archaeologist Flinders Petrie in 1908, it is believed to be that of an ancient Egyptian queen and her child.

“In all probability it seems that the child would be related to her, otherwise why bury them together?,” asks Maureen. “Of course, there may be burial practices we don’t know about. So we sent samples of cartilage and teeth from this burial group to a university in Paris, in an attempt to find if they were related, to see if they could extract DNA.

“Although we got some results, there was nothing significant. However, the interesting thing is that, in a couple of years’ time, they hope to have the knowledge to get results from nuclear DNA, from the nucleus of the cell. That means, finally we will be able to tell their relationship and the sex of the child.”

If that all sounds a bit CSI, you’d be right. “People seem to think that museums are repositories of the past, we’re really not,” says Maureen.

“We’re about finding out as much as we can and passing it on. It’s almost like CSI: Egypt, there’s a lot of detective work goes on behind the scenes and we are very good at putting the human story into our exhibits. That’s what people like. Fantastic looking objects are wonderful, but when they are married to the human element, they become magical.”

Ankhhor certainly proves that point, but he’s not the only one with secrets to be uncovered. “X-rays were being done at the end of the 19th century on these mummies. Obviously the quality wasn’t anything like those of the latter half of the 20th century, but even those X-rays can’t give us anything close to what the CT scanning gives us – a virtual fly-through of the body,” says Maureen.

“When we first had one of these mummies X-rayed, we knew there was something on her leg and we knew there was something on her skull, but we didn’t know what they were. With the new high-level scans we can see that there is a papyrus on her leg and that a scarab, which we have had replicated for the exhibition, has been applied to her skull.”

It’s this new-found detail that drives Maureen’s passion for the subject.

“Many of these mummies are not kings, not queens, they are someone like you or I. In this exhibition, we give these people back their names and their dignity. It’s important to remember that they are people. They are not curios or art objects, they are people and they have names.

“To be able to tell the names of these people is actually a remarkable thing to do. Fascinating Mummies showcases the work of archaeologists combining the past with cutting-edge science to bring ancient Egypt back to life.”

• Fascinating Mummies, National Museum of Scotland, Chambers Street, February 11-May 27, 10am-5pm, £9 (family £26), 0300 123 6789