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Afterlife: Gifts from Thebes

By: Dr Stan Florek, Category: Science, Date: 06 Nov 2015

Mummies, history and science at the Australian Museum.

Ancient Egyptian Mummy E73942

Ancient Egyptian Mummy E73942
Photographer: James King © Australian Museum

Afterlife is a blog series containing stories related to burial and mourning practices in different cultures.

Our fascination with preserved human bodies from distant antiquity and deep prehistory may have various reasons. But we are curious to know how our remote ancestors imagined afterlife and how they prepared themselves to face it. We’d like to know how they cushioned the prospect of death with ritual and social arrangements.

Conveniently, the burial process itself, let alone mummification, increases a chance to preserve a body, its arrangement and associated material objects such as tomb, coffin, decorations, arms, pots and pigments. In short, graves are the best sources of human remains and cultural provisioning for the afterlife.

Ancient Egyptians developed an elaborate mummification process and rich burial rituals. The remarkable state of preservation achieved through both embalming and dry climate amassed a rich “body” of evidence to reconstruct a story of life and death. Mummies provide good material evidence for human physical appearance, health, fitness and, sometimes, the cause of their death.

Unfortunately, collecting fervour, treasure hunting (since antiquity) and profit-making, brought about pillage-style collecting as a permanent and significant factor in the history of Egyptian archaeology. Mummies began arriving to various European collections and incipient museums since the 18th century. The British Museum obtained its first mummy in 1756.

The Australian Museum acquired the first sizeable collection of preserved Egyptian human remains, mostly skulls, in 1882 – the same year when a big fire destroyed a large part of the Museum’s collections. In 1912 Robert Lucas-Tooth (1844-1915), businessman, humanitarian and philanthropist, donated to the Museum two coffins, complete with mummies of a man and a woman (as we later discovered). Both were supposedly recovered from Thebes in Egypt in 1900.

But since the mummies came without any documentation they were left to tell the story themselves, with the keen help of historians, archaeologists and forensic scientists. The first thing to notice about the male mummy, or as some media fraternally call him Muharib, is that his body is unusually narrow, his hands contorted and there are signs that his coffin had been repainted.

In the next few narratives we’ll sketch the story of this intriguing man, whose journey to afterlife took some unexpected turns.

Prepared by Charlotte Kowalski and Stan Florek