Ancient Lives New Discoveries
22 May 2014 – 12 July 2015
Featuring a temple singer, the daughter of a priest and a woman with a Christian tattoo, the Ancient Lives exhibition centres on eight people from ancient Egypt and Sudan whose bodies have been preserved, either naturally or by deliberate embalming.
The British Museum acquired its first mummy in 1756 and its collection of preserved bodies has grown since. But for the past 200 years none has been unwrapped.
Technology has been critical in uncovering what these mummies reveal about ancient cultures. A full x-ray survey of the bodies was conducted in the 1960s and CT scans followed in the 1990s. Now the latest medical scanners have captured data of unprecedented high resolution, making it possible to produce 3D visualisations of eight of the museum's mummies.
These scans journey into the body through the skin, picking out the condition of the organs and skeleton in order to unlock the secrets of mummification. The mummies selected for this research project cover a period of over 4000 years, from the Predynastic period to the Christian era, from sites in Egypt and the Sudan. They reveal that mummification was used by people at different levels of society, and was not just the preserve of Pharaohs.
Also in the display are other contextual objects from the collection, such as amulets, canopic jars, musical instruments and items of food.
One of the stars of the British Museum exhibition is an adult male from Thebes, mummified in c600BC. The CT data reveals the processes used to preserve his body; the brain and the internal organs have been partially removed and the soft tissues are in good condition.
A specially designed visualisation shows the man’s head on three sides of a large cube, including the spatula used to remove the brain which his embalmer left lodged within his skull. A replica of his lower mandible reveals multiple dental abscesses which must have caused him considerable pain during his lifetime.
Also featured is a female singer called Tamut, who lived in Thebes in c900BC. She was subject to the highest level of mummification available at this period. and her elite burial involved amulets and other magical trappings being placed on her body. An interactive digital visualisation and 3D prints are used to examine these ritual objects, while a study of the scans reveals she suffered from extensive plaque in her arteries, which could have contributed to her death.