Behind the scenes in the Manchester Museum mummy store

Have you ever wondered where mummies are kept when they are not on display? Listen to Dr Campbell Price, Curator of Egypt and Sudan at The Manchester Museum reveal where the Manchester mummies ‘live’ and why.

 

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A brief guide to ancient Egyptian mummification

The methods the ancient Egyptian used to preserve their dead were developed and adapted over more than 3000 years. The brief timeline below charts the, often messy, evolution of the physical process of mummification. Watch out for future posts exploring aspects of mummification in more detail!

The word “mummy” originates from the Arabic word mumia meaning pitch or bitumen. This is thought to be a reference to the blackened appearance of Egyptian mummies, and the black tar-like substance that comes from the ‘mummy mountain’ in Persia.

Egypt’s earliest mummies were preserved through ‘accidental’ or ‘unintentional’ mummification. In the Predynastic Period (c.5300-3000 BC), the dead were buried, usually in the foetal (flexed) position, in a shallow pit in the sand. Grave goods included reed mats, pottery bowls, beaded jewellery and animal skins. The grave was filled with sand and sometimes capped with a limestone marker. The dry conditions resulted in some bodies mummifying without the artificial preservation we are familiar with.

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Naturally preserved mummies are found at all periods of ancient Egypt history. This man dates to the Predynastic Period. He was found at Gebelein and is currently on display in the British Museum. ©Trustees of the British Museum.

The Early Dynastic Period (c.3000-2686 BC) saw changes in burials for royalty; their bodies placed in underground tombs, sometimes lined with mudbrick. This change in conditions prevented natural mummification, and the Egyptians started to artificially preserve bodies using resin-soaked bandages.

Throughout the Old Kingdom (c.2686-2160 BC), the Egyptians experimented with different methods and materials to preserve the soft tissues, including resin or plaster-soaked bandages moulded to the body. The earliest evidence of preservation using natron, a naturally occurring salt found in the Delta region, and of evisceration, the removal of the organs – which were then stored in Canopic chests or jars – comes from this period.

The Middle Kingdom (c.2055-1650 BC) was the first time that mummification wasn’t limited to the royal family. Wealthy members of society could now be mummified; the increased number of clients led to experimentation with different methods. One of the biggest changes was the removal of the brain, usually done through the nose.

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The canopic chest and jars belonging to Nekht Ankh, a 12th Dynasty mummy found at Rifeh can be seen on display in The Manchester Museum. © The Manchester Museum.

Some of the most well-known mummies in museums today come from the New Kingdom (c.1550-1069 BC) , when the techniques had been perfected. The process was documented by the historian Herodotus:

  • The body was cleansed and purified then sent to the embalmers workshop.
  • The brain was removed via the nose, and the organs removed via a cut in the left side.
  • The body was stuffed with linen packets to absorb moisture.
  • The packets were removed, the body stuffed with natron, and the outside of the body covered with powdered natron for 40 days.
  • The natron was removed and the body rinsed and dried then painted with a resin and beeswax mix. Hot resin would sometimes be poured into the body to prevent decay.
  • The body was wrapped in linen, fingers and toes wrapped individually, larger strips were used for the arms and legs. Large linen sheets were used for the torso; the ends of the strips were stuck down with hot resin. Sometimes the wrappings or shroud were painted.
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The lifelike appearance of 21st Dynasty royal mummies, such as Queen Ahmose Nefertari, show the sophistication of the embalmers art during this period (after Smith 1912, Plate VII)

These methods developed into a desire to maintain the lifelike preservation of the body during the Third Intermediate Period (c.1069-664 BC). This was achieved by stuffing materials including sawdust, sticks, linen, fat and mud between the skin and the muscles. These attempts did not last though and the focus moved away from the mummy to the wrappings themselves.

Late Period (664-332 BC) mummies are rare, giving an incomplete understanding of the process at this time. The outer wrappings formed complex patterns, but the linen closer to the mummy was stuck down with resin. If the organs were removed they were sometimes put back into the body in resin-soaked packets. Some Late Period mummies are made up from body parts from several different people and some have limbs missing.

During the Ptolemaic and Roman Periods (332 BC- AD 395), embalmers focused more on the outward appearance of the mummy. Linen was wrapped around the body in intricate patterns and often decorated with gold-leaf. There was also increased use of resin filling the body cavity and over the mummy wrappings. A distinctive feature of Roman Period mummies was the addition of a portrait on board or linen.

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Mummies from the Roman Period are very distinctive in appearance, often having elaborate bandaging and funerary masks. This is mummy no. 1766 from the Manchester Museum who was found in the Fayoum region of Egypt. © The Manchester Museum

The growth of Christianity, and later Islam, in Egypt led to the decline of the traditional Egyptian burial custom of mummification that had begun over three millennia earlier in the Predynastic Period.

Becca Horne

Who was Manchester Mummy 1770?

Mummies and skeletons are studied so that we can find out about the life of that person, as well as learning about what a particular society or period of history was like. Manchester mummy 1770 has been studied probably more than many other ancient mummies, so what have the studies carried out so far told us about her?

Manchester mummy 1770 is a young girl who was about 13 years old when she died. She lived during the Ptolemaic period of ancient Egyptian history (332 – 30 BC), when Egypt was ruled by Macedonian or Greek rulers.

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The cartonnage found with Manchester mummy 1770 did not provide her name

The name of many Egyptian mummies can be found in hieroglyphs on the bandages used to wrap them or on their coffin. Mummy 1770 had no coffin when she came to Manchester and there was no name on her bandages, so we do not know what her name was. Because of this she is known as Manchester mummy 1770 – the number is her museum record number.

No records came with mummy 1770 either, so we don’t know exactly where in Egypt she was found. It is however likely that she was found by the Egyptologist, Sir William Flinders Petrie. At the time when mummy 1770 was found, Petrie was digging at a site called Hawara in middle Egypt so she likely to have come from there.

 

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One of the gold nipple amulets found during the unwrapping

There is nothing to suggest that mummy 1770 was someone of great importance during her lifetime. The process of artificial mummification used to produce a mummy was an expensive and time consuming process. However, by the Ptolemaic period mummification was becoming more easily available to the middle classes as well as the upper classes of ancient Egyptian society. Mummy 1770’s body was not prepared using the most elaborate type of bandaging and her mummification was poor. She was however buried with gold nipple amulets and finger nail covers, suggesting she was not a commoner.

 

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The X-ray of mummy 1770’s chest and abdomen revealed the presence of a calcified guinea worm. This is the small white spot near her spine

Mummy 1770 was also found to have guinea worm disease – this is caused by a parasitic worm that can be caught from drinking contaminated water. This disease is still found in some parts of Africa today but it is not as common now as it would have been in ancient times. Guinea worm disease could have made mummy 1770 feel sick and feverish and cause pain in her joints and legs.

Eventually guinea worms try to leave the person they have infected by breaking through the skin on their feet which can be very painful. We do not know if this happened to mummy 1770 as she did not have any lower legs when she was found. It is impossible to tell whether her lower legs were amputated before she died because of this disease or whether there was another reason for this.

The Unwrapping of Manchester Mummy 1770

In June 1975 a very rare event took place at The University of Manchester – the unwrapping of an ancient Egyptian mummy. Before an audience of scientists and experts, the Manchester mummy project team unwrapped and dissected Manchester mummy number 1770. The team who unwrapped mummy 1770 consisted of specialists in Egyptology, pathology (human disease), dental studies, radiology, entomology (the study of insects) and microscopy. They were led by Rosalie David, the then curator of Egyptology at the Manchester Museum.

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The Museum had started a project a few years earlier to study the mummies in its collection and many of the mummies had already been x-rayed at a nearby hospital. A lot had been learned about each mummy – their age when they died, whether they were male or female, the diseases or broken bones they had during life and how they were mummified, ready for the Afterlife.

The ‘Mummy Project’ team carrying out these studies decided that they would go on to autopsy one mummy to study it in great detail and to use what they found to develop a non-destructive way of studying mummies in the future.

Mummy 1770 from the Manchester Museum collection had been chosen for unwrapping and further study because she was very poorly preserved. Her bandages were loose and very fragile and the x-rays showed that her skeleton had become jumbled up underneath the bandages. She did not look like a ‘normal’ mummy beneath her bandages as she did not have very much mummified skin left – she was mostly a skeleton. This had happened to her a long time before she came to Manchester, probably whilst she was still in her tomb in Egypt.

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Over several days, the layers of bandages were gently removed from the body exposing three pieces of cartonnage – a head mask, chest piece and slippers. The body was then studied in sections, with a lot of samples being taken for different types of scientific study. Insects were found between the different layers of bandages – the study of these told the mummy project team that mummy 1770 had been dead for quite a while before she was mummified. This helped to explain why she was poorly preserved.

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Each bone of her skeleton and any remaining mummified tissue was carefully collected and recorded, even down to very tiny scraps. Looking at the skeleton confirmed that the mummy was a girl and that she was around 12-13 years old when she died. A mystery was also discovered during the autopsy – mummy 1770 had no lower legs when she was mummified. She had been given false feet made of reeds by the embalmers to make sure she could walk again in the Afterlife. It was impossible to tell what happened to her lower legs, although there have been lots of suggestions over the years!

Mummy 1770 continues to be studied today, using a range of scientific techniques. We don’t have all the answers about who she was, what life was like for her and how she died but each new study reveals something new about this mysterious mummy.

Welcome to the Unwrapped project blog!

Follow the Unwrapped Project team as we investigate how and why mummies were created and the ways in which mummies can be studied. We will be exploring what can be learnt from the scientific examination of mummies and also carrying out new research into one particular Egyptian mummy – Manchester mummy number 1770. This mummy was studied in the 1970s in a rare example of a scientific unwrapping and autopsy of an ancient mummy to be carried out in the UK.

We will be using new techniques to learn more about the life and death of mummy number 1770. The results of our studies will be posted on this blog as the project progresses.

You can also follow the project’s progress on Twitter @Unwrapped1770