Sunday, April 13, 2014

Unravelled after 3,000 years, the secrets of the singing mummy

By Fiona Macrae

Her body has lain undisturbed for almost 3,000 years.

Now, thanks to modern technology, the secrets of Tamut’s life are being unwrapped without upsetting her peace.

Using a CT scanner in London hospitals, experts from the British Museum peered through the intricately decorated burial case and the multiple layers of linen bandages to the person hidden inside.

The electronic excavation showed Tamut to have received the most lavish level of mummification, with amulets and other mystical jewels buried with her. 

These include artificial eyes, to allow her to see in the afterlife, thin plates of gold or another precious metal on her finger and toe nails and metal plates designed to magically heal the wounds left by the embalmer.

Some of the amulets were placed on her body – others were put inside, beside her vital organs.

Her hair was short, likely because she wore a wig, and examination of her pelvis suggests she was at least 35 when she died. The cause of death is unknown – but the scans provide a tantalising clue.

They show a large part of the femoral artery in her upper thigh to be clogged with fat, a piece of which could have broken off and triggered a heart attack or a stroke.

The hieroglyphics on her burial case tell us who she was and who her parents were. They also reveal she was a chantress of the god Amun – or a temple singer. 

Tamut is one of eight mummies to be virtually unwrapped in the British Museum’s Ancient Lives, New Discoveries exhibition from May 22.

The men, women and children lived along the banks of the Nile in Egypt and Sudan between 3500BC and 700AD and their lives and deaths are now revealed in unprecedented detail.

The images come from CT scanners – which are normally used to diagnose tumours, fractures and heart disease.

The scanners use X-rays to produce images of slice after slice of the mummies. The information is then knitted together using software designed for the car industry. 
By calling up material of a specific density, it was possible to view bandages, skin or bone and so peel back layer after layer.

Not all of individuals examined were rich – some were mummified simply by burying them in the hot desert sand soon after death.

The scans and other examinations revealed evidence of tattoos and toothache, as well as the hardening of the arteries that plagued Tamut.

One striking image shows the end of a spatula clearly lodged in the skull of a man who died in Thebes around 600BC.

It is thought the wooden or reed tool broke when the embalmer was trying to break up the man’s brain and remove it through his nose, while preparing him for his journey to the afterlife. 

His life would have been a painful one, with scans revealing holes in his jaw left by pus-filled dental abscesses.

A third exhibit delves into the life of a young woman who was mummified naturally after being buried in the sand 1,300 years ago. 

She lived in a Christian community and her upper thigh bears a tattoo symbolising the Archangel Michael.

It hoped that all of the museum’s 100-plus mummies will eventually be unwrapped with the aid of scans and other modern technologies.

British Museum curator John Taylor said: ‘This is really cutting-edge, we are getting clarity and detail we haven’t seen before.

‘We don’t want to disturb what’s inside these bodies. They are incredibly fragile resources and they are also human beings who actually lived and we always have to keep that in mind.

‘So when we investigate mummies now, it is not by unwrapping but by using visualisation technology to look underneath the bandages in a non-destructive way.’

Most of the mummies in the exhibition have been in the museum for at least a century. 
Tamut was part of a collection built up by a French diplomat in the 1890s. Some had undergone X-rays in the 1960s.

The exhibition, which runs until November 30, is sponsored by banking group Jules Baer and electronics giant Samsung.

30 days crooning for King of Gods - then 90 days off

Wearing a long wig and flowing diaphanous robes, glamorous Tamut had an important job in Luxor 3,000 years ago.

The bustling city, 300 miles south of Cairo, was the religious capital of ancient Egypt and as a singer in its Temple of Amun-Ra, the King of the Gods, it was her job to help keep him happy.

The Egyptians believed their gods were entertained by music and one ancient text says the temple singer was one ‘who pacifies the god  with a sweet voice’.

The temple singers were an elite group of women with high status in society.  
Ancient sources suggest they were probably trained by their mothers, with several generations of women in a single family often holding the position in the temple, which is part of the temple complex of Karnak. 

There were several hundred temple singers, and they worked in rotations of 30 days on, then 90 days off, with, it is believed, around 50 of them on duty in the temple at any one time.

Every day they would accompany a male priest in a series of rituals. 

The temple contained a small statue of Amun-Ra, probably only about 1ft tall but made of gold and silver.

Each day the priest would purify the statue by bathing it, dress it in fresh clothes and food would be laid at its feet.

Yesterday Dr John Taylor, curator of the British Museum’s department of Ancient Egypt and the Sudan, said: ‘They believed that the god’s spirit dwelled in the statue and needed to be nourished in this way.

‘While the priest was doing this, incense would be burning and the temple singers would be chanting, clapping and shaking a rattle-like instrument called a sistrum that made a clanging metallic sound.’ 

Amun-Ra was an amalgamation of a very early Egyptian god called Amun, who was concerned with creation, and Ra the sun god.

Inscriptions on the brightly decorated cartonnage, or casing, around Tamut’s remains, show that her father Khonsumose was a priest in the same temple where she sang.

Dr Taylor said Tamut’s mother Mehenmuthat was very likely to have been a temple singer too.

Tamut is depicted on the cartonnage wearing barely-there linen robes and a long black wig as she makes her journey to the underworld. Dr Taylor said her clothes are those of a high status woman and she would have worn similar attire in the temple.

He said: ‘It was expected that a young woman dressed in a slightly provocative way. 
'Basically, the temple singers were trying to assure the approval of the god and that included his sexual appetite so it was thought acceptable to dress in partly see-through clothes.’ 

Wigs made of human hair were a status symbol and also worn as a way of staying free of head lice, which were often a problem in ancient Egypt. 

It is known from her remains that Tamut had short-cropped hair beneath the dark wig she is depicted wearing.

It is thought temple singers received a portion of the food which was laid before the god’s statue.

This could, sources suggest, be up to 20 sacks of grain a day – meaning the annual total would have been enough to support 110 families.

In addition, the god would be given luxury foods such as beef and duck (meat did not form a large part of the ancient Egyptians’ diet, which mainly consisted of flat breads, vegetables, dates, figs and fish) and it is possible Tamut’s death could have been linked to her access to the fatty foods.

She is thought to have been at least 35 when she died around 900BC – around the average life expectancy at the time. Tutankhamun, who ruled Egypt as a boy more than 400 years earlier, died at just 17.

Tamut had furred arteries and may well have died from a heart attack or stroke ‘The state of her arteries could have been a genetic thing, or it could be down to a fat-rich diet. 
'Was she eating a lot of roast duck from the god’s altar?’ said Dr Taylor.

It is not known if Tamut was married, but it is extremely likely as women in ancient Egypt were expected to marry when they reached puberty. 

Nor is it known if she had children, but the chances are she did – and probably several as women having up to 12 pregnancies was common.

Away from the temple, Tamut would have supervised her family home and probably had a few servants. 

Dr Taylor said: ‘I would imagine she had a reasonably easy life style. 

'She probably didn’t do much in the way of manual work, but would have run the home and probably spent quite a lot of her time pregnant and looking  after the children.’


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