Friday, September 28, 2012

Unwrapping the secrets of mummies

There's one really good indicator of the most popular items on display in “Mummies of the World”: Smeared glass.

The case holding the howler monkey? Covered in nose and finger prints. Ditto the Detmold Child, a mummified infant who pre-dates King Tut by a good 3,000 years.

That's what Heather Gill-Frerking, the touring exhibition's scientific research curator, has noticed stop after stop.
San Antonians will get to make their own observations beginning this weekend. “Mummies of the World” opens Saturday at the Witte Museum.

“I think we learn a lot about our humanity through our treatment of our dead,” said Marise McDermott, president and CEO of the Witte. “That's part of what is important about this exhibition.”

The mummies and other objects — including parchment from the Egyptian “Book of the Dead” and a variety of burial items — come from Egypt, South America, Europe and Asia.

The Witte is the second-to-last stop on the exhibition's U.S. tour, and its only stop in Texas. It is a once-in-a-lifetime chance to see the items in it, said Marc Corwin, president of American Exhibitions, which pulled the show together.

“Once this exhibition leaves the U.S., it will go back to the 21 different loaning museums and organizations (that own the items on display), and will never, ever be seen again,” Corwin said.

The show explores death and burial rituals. It also digs into the science of mummification and decomposition, as well as the kinds of information that can be gleaned about the mummies through science and technology.

“This is not edutainment,” Gill-Frerking said. “There's a lot of science and math in this. It's like putting turnips in the mashed potatoes.”

Testing of small samples — as well as MRIs, CT and other scans — reveal a great deal of information, Gill-Frerking said. The data can tell age, cause of death and the final meal that the person consumed. (There's a tube of grains with a bog mummy — which is precisely that, a mummy found in a bog — that was taken from the body.) When mummies are found together, DNA tests can reveal whether they were related.

Many of the mummies are the subjects of ongoing research.

One of them, an adult woman, was found with her arms wrapped in fabric and crossed over her chest, hands clenched shut. A CT scan revealed that she was clutching two baby teeth in her hands.
The significance of the teeth isn't clear. Did they belong to her children? Her grandchildren? Were they to serve some purpose in the afterlife?

Gill-Frerking has no idea.

That's true of mummies throughout the exhibit. Frequently, she said, answering one question will lead to others that can't quite be definitively figured out.

She doesn't know, for instance, why one of the skulls on display at the beginning of the Egypt section has a prosthetic tongue. It's not clear how the howler monkey acquired his festive, feathered wardrobe. There's no way of knowing why a South American woman found with two children ended up with one child's remains under her head, like a pillow.

Gill-Frerking would really love to know why one of the mummies, a child, was preserved in a coffin with a wooden roof. And what is the significance of the tattoos on the breasts and face of a woman found in Chile?

“She has so much to tell us,” Gill-Frerking said.

All of the testing is done with the utmost care to make sure the mummies aren't damaged in any way.

“We will never, ever, ever unwrap a mummy,” she said.

She and the rest of the teams who work with them are careful because the mummies are fragile, and also because they're mindful of what they are.

“For me, it isn't that these were people,” she said. “These are people. They have to be treated with respect.”

Mummies probably have some kindnesses coming to them, given how they were frequently treated in the past. Some were burned to power trains, she said. Some were ground up, the powder used for medicinal purposes; some of the powder went into a pigment known as “mummy brown.” (The color still exists, she said, though mummies no longer are part of its makeup.)

In the Victorian era, travelers would purchase mummies and take them home. Some would display them; some would turn them into a game.

“People would have mummy unwrapping parties,” Gill-Frerking said. “They would give away the amulets (found in the bandages) as party favors.”

The show includes plenty of items that might be expected from a mummy exhibition — including an elaborately painted sarcophagus and mummified animal remains from Egyptian tombs — as well as plenty of surprises, including South American mummies preserved in seated poses and a Hungarian family of three buried beneath a church in the early 19th century.

One of the driving ideas behind the exhibit is to demystify mummies.

“There are a lot of Hollywood myths about mummies, like they're going to come and get you at night,” Corwin said. “But they don't.”

Note: Check out the Agenda section at this site for more information about the exhibition at the Witte Museum.

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