Conserving an Egyptian mummy unwraps a surprise discovery

Read how a conservation project uncovered important facts about the museum's mummy.

It is rewarding work to conserve collection material and ancient artefacts are no exception. The mummy is one of the museum's icons, having been in the collection since 1912. But what did we know about this ancient Egyptian? A recent conservation and research project provided the opportunity to find out more.  

What did we know?

  • Records show that the mummy was excavated in Thebes (modern day Luxor).
  • It had been dated to the Late Period, 26th Dynasty-saite period (664-525 BCE), and therefore 2500 years old.
  • X-rays taken in the 1970's led to conclusions that the body was that of a middle aged man with arthritis.
  • The mummy is fragile, particularly the linen wrappings.
  • Many important facts remained unclear or unknown, such as the age of the deceased, skeletal condition, and date of mummification.

What did we find out?

A computed tomography scan (CT scan) was conducted at the Radiology Department of the Royal Prince Alfred Hospital (RPA) where senior radiology staff (from the RPA) and Egyptologists from Macquarie University assisted with data interpretation. The most exciting result from the CT scan was the general consensus that the body is most likely that of a middle aged female, rather than that of a male as previously concluded. The CT scan revealed other interesting facts about the mummy and the mummification process such as:

  • There are no major organs remaining in the body.
  • Voids left in the chest and abdomen are filled with an inorganic substance.
  • Cloth wadding was found in the pelvis.
  • Fragile bones at the bridge of the nose are still intact indicating that the brain may not have been removed via the nasal passage.
  • Dental images showed major losses of teeth in the lower jaw however teeth in the top jaw are mostly present, although exhibiting signs of infection.
  • Both arms have been individually wrapped before wrapping the entire body
  • Hundreds of metres of linen have been used to wrap the body.
  • There is early arthritis in the knees, hips, and ankles.
  • She is probably not older than 60 and was not involved in heavy physical activity on a daily basis.

How old is the mummy? 

Samples of the linen were collected and sent to laboratories in the United Kingdom and New Zealand for Accelerated Mass Spectrometry (AMS) carbon-14 dating. The results obtained indicated that the linen wrapping was approximately 2800 years old, making the date of mummification 300 years earlier than previously thought!

How did we minimise further damage?

The treatment program was designed to stabilize the mummy for display and for safe transport to the CT scanning facilities. A thorough examination of the mummy was carried out which involved lifting it out of the coffin; an anxious yet exciting event as it was not sure if this had been done to the mummy before! Once removed from the coffin several major areas of damage were noted such as:

  • Structural damage to the skeleton at the neck and across the shins.
  • Linen wrappings are extremely fragile, brittle, and desiccated in some areas.
  • Linen wrappings were unraveling, torn, and heavily creased in some sections.
  • Severe insect damage was evident to the linen particularly along the legs and underside.
  • Particulate matter including blue faience, plant material, insect casings and paint were found in mud encrusted to the underside.

The treatment seemed a daunting task however once patching and humidification treatments were carried out, the best approach was to protect the linen by encapsulating the entire mummy in a ‘body stocking’ of fine net that would firmly hold the linen in place.

The museum mummy is now in better shape for the future and the research undertaken has enabled a better understanding of this museum favourite. See the display on Level 1 for more information and fascinating images from the CT scan.
 


Heather Mackay , Conservator
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