The Mummy Chamber
- Dates: May 5, 2010 through date unknown
- Collections: Egyptian, Classical, Ancient Near Eastern Art
The Mummy Chamber
The Brooklyn Museum’s Mummy Chamber explores how and why mummies were made, as part of the strategies employed by ancient Egyptians in their quest to defeat death. The Chamber contains four ancient mummies—one woman and three men—together with the equipment these individuals believed they would need to live forever in the afterlife. Their equipment includes a variety of coffins, from different periods; the stone inscriptions and reliefs that provided food offerings to the dead; protective amulets used in life and death; figurines of magical servants who could do the individual’s heavy work in the next life; and a twenty-five-foot-long Book of the Dead papyrus that provided the spells ensuring entrance into the next world and survival there.
In addition, recent scientific investigations of the Museum’s mummies are represented through three-dimensional X-rays called CT scans. Advances in imaging technology provide a remarkable new history of mummy making that supplements the written record.
Finally, multimedia components in the gallery explore the place of the Egyptian mummy in the Museum’s collection and also in popular culture. The onscreen presentations offer a behind-the-scenes look at the study and care of funereal antiquities in an encyclopedic institution as well as examining the public’s continued fascination with these ancient remains.
The Mummy in Popular Culture
Representations of mummies in popular culture are original inventions rather than accurate portrayals of ancient Egypt. Mummies entered the popular imagination in 1845 through Edgar Allan Poe’s short story “Some Words with a Mummy.” Arthur Conan Doyle’s “The Ring of Thoth” (1890) first provided the theme of immortal mummies searching for their lost loves. That idea reappears in the American film The Mummy (1932), starring Boris Karloff, inspired in part by the famous discovery of King Tutankhamun’s tomb in 1922.
Modern fashion design has often taken inspiration from the world of ancient Egypt. A popular, recent example is the form-fitting “bandage” dress, in which strips of fine fabric are wrapped around a dress form to mimic the bandages of an Egyptian mummy. The concept was interpreted by designers such as Azzedine Alaïa and Hervé Léger, and has since been reinterpreted by many others.
Mummies in Museums
The Mummy Chamber departs from the Museum’s previous practice of keeping human mummies in storage. This installation allows these mummies to become an important point of departure for learning about ancient Egyptian religion, medicine, and science.
Always remembering that these preserved human remains represent real human lives, the Museum brings to light four individuals—the Lady Gautseshenu; the priests Thothirdes and Hor; and an anonymous man of the Roman Period—both to educate visitors about antiquity and to pay respect to ancient Egypt’s remarkable accomplishments.
See the kiosk in the next gallery to explore changing attitudes toward the issue of display, and to see clips from a 1958 television show that dealt with the presentation of mummies at the Brooklyn Museum.
Osiris and Rebirth
The story of the god Osiris reflects the ancient Egyptians’ understanding of the afterlife. It also explains the origin of the human-shaped coffin.
Osiris and his wife Isis were Egypt’s beloved first rulers. Osiris’s jealous brother, Seth, invited the king to a party, only to trap him in a special human-shaped box—like a coffin—exactly in Osiris’s dimensions. Seth and his co-conspirators threw the box into the Nile, and Osiris drowned; Seth claimed the throne. Isis retrieved Osiris’s body and magically revived him long enough so that they could conceive a child. She also built temples for him where he could receive food offerings after death, establishing the precursor of the tomb.
Osiris became king of the afterlife while Isis raised Horus, their son. Horus later defeated his uncle Seth and became king of Egypt. But all Egyptians wanted to imitate his father, Osiris, at their death by being reborn into the afterlife. The mummy itself and many of the objects in the tomb helped the deceased achieve this goal.
The Voyage of the God Re
The myth of Re explains how Egyptians understood the structure of both our world and the afterlife. They believed that the sun god Re traveled in a boat across the sky each day, from east to west, in the world of the living. Reaching the west, he entered the afterlife, at sunset, and then traveled across the sky of the underworld, going eastward, during the night. Each hour that the god traveled in the underworld he was attacked by Apophis, a dragon-like demon. Only during the fifth hour of his night journey was Re safe, in the realm of Osiris. At the end of the twelfth hour of his underworld voyage, Re was reborn into the eastern horizon of our world, at sunrise.
Many of the decorations in royal tombs and on papyrus reveal a desire to travel with Re in his boat after death. Many of the objects in this area illustrate the deceased in the presence of a form of the sun god—one way to establish a place in the afterlife.
The stories about Re and about Osiris, along with a series of magic spells that protected the deceased from danger, provided the knowledge an ancient Egyptian needed to enter, and thrive in, the afterlife.
The Egyptians believed that the body must be preserved in order to ensure eternal life. The Greek historian Herodotus, who visited Egypt in the fifth century B.C.E., described three different mummification processes available depending on the deceased’s budget. The Brooklyn Museum mummies display variations on those methods.
The most expensive process involved surgical removal of the brain and separate mummification of the internal organs, which were then stored in canopic jars. Priests who prepared the mummy used natron, a naturally occurring salt, to dehydrate the body over the course of seventy days. Then priests poured an expensive combination of imported and domestic resins inside the body, to preserve it. The body was then wrapped in linen bandages, like those displayed nearby, and placed in a coffin.
A less expensive method substituted an abdominal injection of cedar resin for the surgical process. This resin liquefied the internal organs, which were drained through the rectum. Dehydration with natron followed, along with wrapping in linen.
Finally, in the cheapest method, an enema allowed priests to remove the internal organs through the rectum. Herodotus gives no further details of the cheapest method.
Ancient Mummies and Modern Science
These four ancient mummies were CT scanned in the summer of 2009 (see the nearby kiosk for a behind-the-scenes look at the process). When compared with Herodotus’s account of mummification, summarized on a text panel nearby, the scans of each chest cavity and skull reveal variations found also in the archaeological record. The absent brain and well-preserved heart in the mummy of Pasebakhaienipet, dating to the tenth century B.C.E., demonstrate that Herodotus’s primary, or most expensive, method was known five hundred years before the time he described it. But the mummies of Hor and Thothirdes, dating to the eighth to sixth centuries B.C.E., demonstrate a method not described by Herodotus. It appears that internal organs were often mummified, wrapped in linen, and then reinserted into the chest cavity during this period. The brain remained in the skull. The mummy of the anonymous man, from the Roman Period, shows preparations where all of the internal organs were removed, perhaps evidence of Herodotus’s second, less expensive method.
The Tomb of Sa-Inher at Abydos
From 1911 to 1913, archaeologists working for the British-based Egypt Exploration Fund excavated a large cemetery at Abydos. The tomb of Sa-Inher was one of the largest of the tombs in the cemetery, dating to the late Twelfth to early Thirteenth Dynasties (1938–1630 B.C.E.). The tomb consisted of a vertical shaft leading to three subterranean chambers. Soon after the tomb was sealed in antiquity, grave robbers broke into it searching for valuables, as evidenced by the shaft they dug. Apparently, before they could loot the tomb they were forced to flee, leaving behind the objects now on display in this case.
Sa-Inher was among the wealthiest individuals buried in this cemetery. Many of the objects in his tomb were made of rare materials, including gold, silver, electrum, and ivory. According to the inscription on a scarab discovered in the tomb, Sa-Inher held the title “treasurer.” Although treasurers were not high-ranking nobles, they held positions of trust in the local administration and had access to rare, costly materials. This assemblage therefore exemplifies the kinds of tomb objects that belonged to a person at the middle level of society.
What is a Book of the Dead?
The collection of texts known today as the Book of the Dead consists of nearly two hundred “chapters” or “spells” believed to endow their owners with the know-how to move about freely in the afterlife, to gain the necessary food and drink there, and even to have others do work for them. They also gave their owners information about an often hostile environment whose inhabitants could be treacherous.
No single Book of the Dead contained all of the available spells, and each shows some individuality in the selection of spells included. Though certain spells almost always appear in conjunction with other spells in groups that we call “sequences,” the choice of which spells to include in an individual Book of the Dead lay open. We are still uncertain about the process of composition, however, and how that choice was made remains unclear.
From the beginning of their civilization, the ancient Egyptians wrapped the dead in layers of linen. The practice of inscribing funerary spells on mummy bandages, however, became popular only in Greco-Roman times, almost three millennia later.
The texts and images on mummy bandages paralleled contemporary Books of the Dead on papyrus (see the nearby example), imitating and replacing this costly material. Both were intended to provide the deceased with protective and sustaining powers in the afterlife.
The spells’ proximity to the deceased body was probably meant to enhance their effectiveness through direct contact. The pictorial vignettes, which were an integral part of the Book of the Dead and often illustrated the meaning of the related written spells, were likely believed to be just as potent as the text, if not more
In order for the deceased to live eternally, priests or descendants remembered his or her name, offered prayer, and provided food and drink. Inscribed stone slabs, called stelae, were placed in tombs to realize all three of these functions. The texts on stelae mention the dead person’s name and sometimes his or her titles (such as “royal scribe” or “mistress of the house”), parents’ names, and, less often, grandparents’ names. Priests recited the texts on a regular basis. Other literate people were expected to read the prayer that provided food, drink, and clothing when they visited the tomb.
Popular in all periods of ancient Egyptian history, amulets were worn by the living as well as by mummies, to ensure the integrity of the body and the safe passage of the deceased to the underworld. These amulets express beliefs, attract well-being, ward off evil, and convey other hopes and wishes. They were made of many materials: metal, stone, glass, bone, wood, faience, and shell, among others. Priests wrapped amulets inside the deceased’s bandages. Very rarely, priests left amulets inside the abdomen when preparing the mummy.