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Exhibition overturns understanding of ancient Egypt’s mummies | Science | News

The Manchester Museum announces the installation of the Golden Mummies

A stunning new exhibition at the revamped Manchester Museum, which opens to the public later this month, challenges long-held assumptions about the purpose of mummification in ancient Egypt and the practice’s role in belief in the afterlife. Drawing on the museum’s world-leading Egyptology collections, the “Golden Mummies of Egypt” exhibition focuses on notions of the afterlife in the often-overlooked Greco-Roman period of the country’s history – spanning from 332 BC to 332 BC. After Alexander the Great’s conquest of Persian-controlled Egypt, Egypt was ruled first by a Greek royal family until the end of the reign of Queen Cleopatra VII, and then by a series of Roman emperors.

Much of the Manchester Museum’s Egyptian collections come from the excavations of Victorian archaeologist William Matthew Flinders Petrie, a British archaeologist and a sort of predecessor of Indiana Jones, who conducted excavations throughout Egypt from the 1880s to the 1920s.

The new exhibition is particularly interested in his finds from Hawara – a site about 50 miles south of present-day Cairo. Although it was built during the reign of Pharaoh Amenemhat III (1831-1786 BC), who had a great pyramid built on the site, it continued as a cemetery well into the Roman-Egyptian period.

Just as Greek and Roman rule left their mark on ancient Egypt, Egyptian ideas about death also influenced its Mediterranean neighbors.

While the afterlife of the Greeks and Romans was comparatively bleak, Egyptian tradition, by contrast, offered the alluring potential of being reborn into a bright, perfected version of the world and joining Osiris, the god of rebirth, in eternal life.

Pictured: Dr.  Campbell Price and golden mummies

An exhibition challenges assumptions about the purpose of mummification in ancient Egypt (Image: Manchester Museum / Julia Thorne)

A gilded mummy

Pictured: the gilded mask of a woman named Isaious buried at Hawara (Image: Julia Thorne)

The long-held view of mummification was that it was specifically designed to preserve the body – with many studies focused on identifying the chemical “recipe” used to achieve this.

According to Manchester Museum curator and Egyptologist Dr. Campbell Price, this is a misunderstanding of the goal, which had its origins in the Victorian context in which mummies were excavated and brought to Europe, and which was shaped by “Judeo-Christian notions of resurrection and keeping together again after death”.

Instead, he explains, mummification was really just about transformation. He said, “It’s about altering the body in some way to make it impervious and godlike.”

In fact, he added, the preservation of the mummy’s tissues may have just been an “unintentional consequence of the purification process.”

This could explain, for example, why the so-called black goo (a mixture of animal fats, beeswax, bitumen, vegetable oils and tree sap) used to treat some mummified individuals was also counterintuitively smeared onto their beautifully decorated sarcophagi – the important thing The thing was not that the slime embalmed the body, but that it was used in the first place to ritually activate and transform whatever lay underneath.

READ MORE: Inside the UK’s largest university museum after a £15m makeover

Archaeologist William Matthew Flinders Petrie

Much of the Manchester Museum’s Egyptian collections come from William Matthew Flinders Petrie (Picture: Public Domain)

The Pyramid of Pharaoh Amenemhat III at Hawara

Pictured: the pyramid of Pharaoh Amenemhat III at Hawara (Picture: Public Domain / Markh)

dr  Price and a golden mummy

In mummification, said Dr. Price (pictured) was about transforming the body for the afterlife (Image: Manchester Museum)

Accordingly, there is no “scientific” recipe for preparing the perfect mummy. Nonetheless, there were common practices that shed light on the ancient Egyptian view of the afterlife and its deities.

The deceased were shrouded in shrouds, arms across their chests, and took the form of the gods. Just as the gods were believed to have hair made of the precious stone lapis lazuli and skin made of imperishable gold, so many mummies from the Greco-Roman era were given blue headgear and gilded skin to give them a similar shape after death.

As stated in a first-century AD embalming ritual: “The sun god will gild your body for you, a beautiful color even to the extremities of your limbs. He will make your skin bloom with gold.”

Oddly enough, Flinders Petrie was disgusted by the gilded mummies he unearthed at Hawara – his racist worldview was offended by the mix of Greek, Roman and Egyptian styles they displayed – and largely viewed them solely for the prices they could achieve at the sale, as well.

In 1888 he wrote: “The plague of gilded mummies continues… wretched things with gilded faces and painted headdresses.”#

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A mummy with a blue headgear

Since the Egyptian gods were said to have hair made of lapis lazuli, mummies were given blue head coverings (Image: Julia Thorne)

A child mom

Pictured: a child mummy (Image: Julie Thorne)

The exhibit – which has just wrapped up a successful tour of the US and China – features more than 100 artifacts, including eight spectacular gilded mummies.

However, unlike many previous Egyptology exhibitions around the world, the Manchester Museum refrains from using CT scans and facial reconstructions of the deceased.

Part of the reasoning behind this is that it is hoped the exhibition will show how the processes involved in mummification – the cleaning, anointing and packaging – were a sacred and secret art.

At the same time, explains Dr. Price, the move will avoid the pitfalls of interpreting the mummified individuals solely based on their perceived health status.

This is a succinct reinterpretation of the individuals, which would have been a far cry from the idealized, god-like form that the deceased hoped to obtain through the mummification process.

A Fayum portrait

The Fayum portraits are panel paintings of faces attached to upper-class mummies in Roman Egypt (Image: Julia Thorne)

Another highlight of the exhibition is a selection of the so-called Fayum Portraits, panels of faces that were attached to upper-class mummies in Roman Egypt.

Named for the region where they were first found in the 1880s – but have since been rediscovered from across Egypt – the discovery of the panels, decorated with hot wax and pigment, threw up ideas about how the art developed.

The aim of the paintings seems to have been to give the deceased who wears them an eternal face to wear into the afterlife.

according to dr Price may not have matched this face to the one worn in life – indeed, child mummies were often given adult faces to use after death – and were more like idealized avatars representing what the dead wanted to look like.

All of this is the same logic at play behind the gilding of the mummy heads. Indeed, close examination of one of the portraits – of a man – shows him wearing a gold laurel leaf and has gold between his lips, in an extension of the other tradition.

It is believed that viewing examples of the Fayum portraits inspired Oscar Wilde to write The Picture of Dorian Gray, a novel concerned with a portrait that assured its subject, at least temporarily, of a timeless beauty similar to that of the Panel paintings were intended in Roman Egypt.

‘Golden Mummies of Egypt’ – which opens on February 18 and will run for at least six months – will be the first show to grace Manchester Museum’s newly constructed temporary exhibition hall. Tickets are free, but reservations are recommended.

The museum will open its doors to the public for the first time in 17 months after an “ambitious” £15m revamp that has increased both its exhibition capacity and its accessibility and inclusivity.

Britain’s largest university museum first opened in 1890 and its collections house a staggering 4.5 million specimens from human culture and science – from long-dead Egyptian mummies to living communities of rare frogs.

A spokesman said: “The museum is reopening its doors with the aim of building better understanding between cultures and a more sustainable world, and bringing to life the lived experience of different communities.”

However, Golden Mummies of Egypt isn’t the only exhibition re-evaluating Victorian assumptions – with April the dinosaur just completing a 19-year revamp that gave her a mount with a more realistic stance, pointing to based on the latest research.

Visit the Manchester Museum website for more information.

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