October 31, 2003
Phone: (504) 865-5714
After more than a century and a half of obscurity, one of Tulane's two ancient Egyptian mummies will venture into the spotlight as part of the New Orleans Museum of Art's upcoming exhibit, "The Quest for Immortality: The Treasures of Ancient Egypt."
The mummies are part of a collection of Egyptian antiquities that was presented to Tulane's predecessor, the University of Louisiana, in 1852. One of the mummies is male and one is female, according to John Verano, associate professor of anthropology and a specialist in paleopathology, the study of health and disease in ancient peoples.
It is the female mummy that will be exhibited, says Verano, who notes that the male mummy was apparently autopsied in Boston in the 1850, and is not in good condition.
"The female mummy was unwrapped but never studied, so it's unusually well preserved. In fact it's one of the best-preserved Egyptian mummies I've ever seen."
The mummy dates from the New Kingdom period of ancient Egypt (c. 1500-1000 BC), when, according to Verano, the art of mummification reached its peak. The upcoming exhibit features a traveling collection of Egyptian national treasures and presents some extraordinary art and artifacts mostly from the New Kingdom period, says Steven Maklansky (A&S '85), assistant director of art for the New Orleans Museum of Art. It includes 106 ancient Egyptian artifacts, almost twice the number in the landmark 1977 exhibit, "Treasures of Tutankhamun."
At the outset, curators decided that one crucial item was missing from the traveling exhibit. "In the context of a contemporary art museum, we appreciate these items from an aesthetic viewpoint," says Maklansky, "but for the Egyptians, many of these objects were part of their burial practices. One thing the traveling show lacks is a mummy, in that the 'quest for immortality' dealt with the actual preparation of the corpse for the afterlife."
Once the museum decided it needed a mummy to round out the exhibit, Maklansky began to search for one. The Boston Museum of Fine Arts had borrowed a mummy from the Carlos Museum in Atlanta, but that was not available.
"At one point I even discovered an international mummy database on the Internet, from which one could find out where mummies 'live,'" he says. Then Maklansky heard a suggestion that Tulane had a mummy. "I went back to the Internet and typed in the words 'Tulane' and 'mummy' into my browser, and came up with a link to the Tulanian magazine article ["A Tale of Two Mummies," spring 1999].
The article describes how the Egyptian collection first came to Tulane, and what has happened to it since then. During its time at Tulane, the collection has mostly languished in out-of-the-way locations, including the anatomical museum of the medical school; the former Tulane Museum, located on the third floor of Gibson Hall; and even for several years in a storage room beneath Sugar Bowl Stadium. But in 1997, the mummies began to receive the attention of scientists.
Verano, together with Guido Lombardi, a Peruvian doctor and graduate student in the anthropology department, began a modern examination of the mummies. With facilities made available by Tulane's Health Sciences Center, the researchers made X-rays and CT scans of both mummies. The examination revealed that the female mummy, whose identity is lost in the mists of time, had been prepared for burial, and the afterlife, in a costly and elaborate manner that only royalty or nobility could have afforded. The museum's request for the loan of a mummy comes at an opportune time, according to Verano.
"I'm interested in exhibiting this mummy to show how we can study it scientifically and reveal things about the past," says Verano. "Hopefully, what the museum visitor will take home is the value of this type of research--that we can tell things using X-rays and CT scans and studies of the bodies themselves that shed light on ancient Egypt in a way that we wouldn't know otherwise."
"I feel that the occasion of this exhibition is an extraordinary opportunity to reintroduce the Tulane mummy to the community and to the world," says Maklansky. "Both the New Orleans Museum of Art and Tulane University have an educational mission, and we feel that presenting the mummy in this context is a good example of us following through on that."
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