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The Tale of Two Mummies

January 1, 1999

Judith Zwolak

The 19th century was the worst of times for Got Tothi Ankh and Nefer Atethu. During this period, these Egyptian mummies were ripped from their eternal resting places, paraded before curious crowds in the Northeast United States and exploited to support racist beliefs in the antebellum South. But better times have come for the two Tulane-owned mummies who currently reside in a temporary research laboratory in Jones Hall.

They have found a champion and caretaker in anthropology graduate student Guido Lombardi. Lombardi, a native of Peru and a medical doctor, is also a paleopathologist, a person who studies ancient human remains to detect evidence of past diseases.

Although the mummies had been in Tulanes possession since the 1850s, when the university was known as the University of Louisiana, few on campus seem to know about their existence. Lombardi, who won a national prize in Peru for his research on mummies, heard of the two Egyptian mummies in early 1997 while he was researching the only other mummy on campus, one from the 18th-century Aleutian Islands housed at the Middle American Research Institute.

I couldnt believe it, Lombardi says. When I learned that a couple of mummies were in the basement of Howard-Tilton Library, I was so excited. The library gave Lombardi permission to study the mummies--one male and one female--and so began his odyssey to learn about these mummies, which would eventually become the subject of his masters thesis.

The tale of the two mummies begins in ancient Egypt. Using old museum tags, a papyrus sheet that accompanied the male mummy and information from CT scans and digital X-rays of the bodies, Lombardi has been able to reconstruct some of the mummies history. The male mummy had an I.D., jokes Lombardi. In his sarcophagus [the large mummy case] was a piece of papyrus that said he was Got Tothi Ankh, chief of the Artificers of Egypt.

He was born in the 10th year of the reign of Osorkon the third, the pharaoh of the third intermediate period about 900 B.C. Lombardi believes Got Tothi Ankh was in his 50s when he died, and the radiological evidence points to chronic periodontal disease and a degenerative disease of the joints.

The female mummy came with no accompanying papyrus, and Lombardi named her Nefer Atethu, beautiful young lady in the ancient Egyptian language. Her skeleton is that of an early teenager without any evidence of disease, Lombardi says. The only thing I found that could explain her death is a distorted symphysis pubis, the joint between both pubic bones. She probably died during a difficult childbirth.

Although the female mummy is the better preserved of the two, evidence shows that both were mummified according to the elaborate fashion of the New Kingdom style for high-status people. This included removing all internal organs (including scraping out pieces of brain through the nasal cavity), stuffing the eyes, nose and cheeks with fabric to retain their shape as the body lost fluid, and replacing the brain and other internal organs with linen and fabric packages.

Funeral preparers then covered the body with a layer of salt for 40 days to dehydrate it for better preservation before covering the body in linen strips and placing it in a sarcophagus. It was an elaborate ceremony that was ordered according to religious rituals, Lombardi says. The whole process lasted 70 days from the death of the person to the burial.

Although the Egyptians prepared the bodies of their dead for their resurrection in the afterlife, the fate of the bodies of Got Tothi Ankh and Nefer Atethu was certainly not what they had envisioned. Their resurrection in this world came at the hands of George Gliddon, a former American vice-consul in Cairo who traveled this country in the 1840s making elaborate presentations on Egyptian art and artifacts. Ever the showman, Gliddon capitalized on the growing public curiosity about mummies by ordering a dozen from a dealer in Egypt.

After looting 12 mummies from the area around modern Luxor, the artifact dealer lost 10 of them in a Nile flood. The two that survived the flood traveled to New York, arriving in 1849. The following June, Mr. Gliddon made a big announcement that he would unroll for the first time two Egyptian priestesses, Lombardi says. He thought that the hieroglyphs on the mummy cases said they were both female. The unrolling of the linen covering the mummies occurred before a capacity crowd of 2,000 physicians and intellectuals on an evening in 1850 in Boston.

As he unrolled the linen and pulled off the last sheet, it was very apparent that the mummy was a man, he says. Everybody laughed at Gliddon and his fame collapsed. It was a fiasco. The tale takes a turn toward the dark side at this point, Lombardi says. A year and a half later, Gliddon shows up in New Orleans, where the mummies were used by a group of physicians who proposed the origin of man was not from a single source, that mankind had originated as different races. In essence, they were scientific racists.

According to followers of this theory, the mummies were evidence of the superiority of white races over blacks and supported a natural basis for slavery. Josiah Nott, an avid proponent of this pseudo-scientific theory, was briefly an anatomy professor of the Medical College of the University of Louisiana, which later became Tulane University. Gliddon presented the mummies to Nott, who gave them to Tulane when he left New Orleans in 1858.

As Tulane artifacts, the mummies have had a nomadic existence. They resided in the medical schools anatomical museum until 1894, when they traveled to the uptown campus to be part of the former Tulane Museum of Natural History on the third floor of Gibson Hall. In 1927, they moved to the Middle American Research Institute in Dinwiddie Hall, but then returned to Gibson Hall in 1930.

The mid-1950s marked another dark period for the mummies, quite literally. When the math department moved into Gibsons third floor, there was no room to display the mummies. Carefully boxed in their glass cases, the mummies spent 1955 to 1978 in a dark, non-climate-controlled room under the bleachers in Tulane Stadium.

A year before the stadiums demolition, Tulane curator Bill Cullison rediscovered the mummies, placing one of the sarcophagi on display in the special collections division, and sending the mummies to the medical centers campus. The mummies returned to Howard-Tilton in 1982 and were stored in the basement until Lombardis discovery two years ago.

This spring marks Lombardi's last semester at Tulane, so the mummies will soon move to the physical anthropology laboratory of his adviser, John Verano, assistant professor of anthropology. Verano says the mummies are a valuable resource for Tulane, with new scientific developments, such as DNA analysis, perhaps leading to further discoveries. As in any valuable research collection, he says, we can never be sure of future research applications.

Editors note: This story will become a longer article for the summer 1999 issue of Tulanian. Anyone with more information or anecdotes about the mummies, particularly during their stay at the downtown campus in the early 1980s, please contact Judy Zwolak at 865-5714.

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