Thursday, August 28, 2014

MPM brings mummies to life: Better than zombies?

February 15, 2011 · 4 Comments 

Mummies of the World ExhibitKristina Ljujic
Editorial Staff

The Milwaukee Public Museum is hosting what is considered the largest exhibition of mummies and related artifacts ever assembled.

The purpose of the exhibition is to show viewers the various processes of mummification, and how and why today’s researchers study mummies. Throughout the exhibit, several scientific techniques are described, such as the use of MRIs, radiocarbon dating, and rapid prototyping, a process that allows three-dimensional replicated models of the specimens to be created. These tools help researcher study the dead without disturbing their natural state.

Representatives of U.S. religious, university, and medical organizations assisted in developing the exhibition. The mummies and artifacts on display are from 20 museum and university collections around the world, according to information provided in the exhibit.

According to information provided in the exhibit, the study of mummies brings light to not only their pasts, but also history as a whole. It gives a glimpse into what life for these people was like thousands of years ago.
When most people think of the terms “mummies,” an image of ancient Egypt consumes their thoughts. However, the mummies in this exhibit come from all over the world, and the processes by which they were mummified vary.

“Many of the mummies in this exhibit are ‘accidental mummies,’ so to speak, being bodies that became mummified due to climactic conditions,” said Dr. Scott Hendrix, an Assistant Professor of History at Carroll University.

According to the exhibit, mummification can occur due to extreme dryness, cold, or heat, all of which either evaporate or preserve the water in the body, slowing decomposition. This allows for the soft tissues of the body to remain intact and be preserved over the course of many years.

Some mummies have been preserved in damp areas, called bogs, which causes the bones and tissue to become of a consistency similar to rubber.

“These bogs are anaerobic environments so whatever falls into them … is preserved since bacteria and whatnot that would otherwise break the body down cannot live and function without air,” said Hendrix. “Some of them are preserved to such an extent that the person’s facial features are still recognizable.”

Other mummies, such as those found in a crypt in Vac, Hungary, were naturally preserved due to being exposed to a cool, dry climate.

Pre-Columbian woman mummy from Peru

Image courtesy of the Milwaukee Public Museum.

Mummies found in South America were often laid to rest in a sitting burial posed, in which their arms were folded around their waist and their knees were brought up to their chest. This differed from the traditional ancient Egyptian burial pose, in which the deceased lay flat with his or her arms folded across the chest.

The exhibit also displays animals that have been both naturally and artificially mummified. Those that were naturally preserved were found in places such as desert and even the dry attics of houses. Others, such as those from Egypt, were seen as sacred and were mummified artificially, similar to the way humans were, according to the exhibit.

On display alongside the mummies are artifacts that were used in burial rituals or found in tombs next to the dead. Among these artifacts are fragments of the Egyptian Book of the Dead. The book tells the process a soul must withstand in order to reach an afterlife.

Other artifacts, such as amulets or jewelry that were placed on the bodies or somewhere nearby in the tomb, give researchers a glimpse into the belief systems and burial rituals of ancient cultures.

“We can learn a great deal about what any culture views as important by considering the way in which the dead are treated within the culture,” said Hendrix.

“Mummies of the World” opened at the Milwaukee Public Museum Dec. 17, and will remain on display through May 30.

For more information on the exhibit, visit www.mummiesoftheworld.com, or for ticket information, visit www.mpm.edu.