The British Museum opens its latest exhibition, Ancient Lives, New Discoveries, this week. Here in Manchester, which the exhibition acknowledges is the home of mummy studies, we have been carrying out similar research on our 20 human mummies, and many of the discoveries we have made tie in with those presented in the BM exhibition.
Between 1908 and 1909, while clearing the courtyards of some New Kingdom tombs on the Luxor west bank at Qurna, W. M. Flinders Petrie discovered an unopened tomb of “about the 25th Dynasty.” This camped space turned out to contain the burials of a man and a woman, presumably husband and wife, which can now be dated to the 22nd Dynasty based on their funerary provisions and the iconography of their coffins. In addition to the coffins, the burial contained a Ptah-Sokar-Osiris figure and two shabti boxes for each occupant. Most of the objects are wooden, covered in a black resin, with details on the coffins picked out in yellow and white paint. The assemblage belonging to the male mummy (whose name is not preserved) was sent to Bristol Museum and the group belonging to his (presumed) wife, a temple singer named Perenbast, came to Manchester.
X-rays taken in the 1970s as part of the Manchester Egyptian Mummy Project revealed some dense shapes in the area of Perenbast’s chest. These were identified as likely to be amulets but it was only in 2013 that their precise nature was understood. Using the latest CT-scanning technology, it is possible to visualise the objects at high resolution. What appeared as grainy masses on the older X-rays were revealed to be a plaque on the left side of the abdomen, used to cover the embalming incision, a scarab beetle and detached wings, and an ‘ib-shaped’ heart amulet. It is not clear if these objects are made of metal, faience, or perhaps wax.
It is now also possible to isolate objects such as amulets and print then in three dimensions, using resin. Such 3D renderings are displayed in the BM show and are planned for Perenbast to enable visitors to handle copies of objects which will never be seen for real. It would be interesting to know what, if any, similar amulets occur in the wrappings of “Mr. Perenbast” in Bristol.
The “revelation” of the “secrets” of Egyptian mummies – whether through physical unwrapping or more modern non-destructive methods such as CT-scanning – has a perennial favourite with the general public for over 200 years. And for just as long there have been (often circular) arguments about the ethics of investigation and display. In a provocative new book, Christina Riggs, formerly Curator of Egypt and Sudan here at the Manchester Museum, charts (and challenges) our obsession with mummies, evaluating ancient intentions and modern preconceptions.
The response to the latest British Museum exhibition shows that, more than ever, we want to probe underneath the mummy’s bandages in new and visually stimulating ways. The value of the answers these investigations provide depends, I suppose, on the value of the questions we come up with in the first place.