February 24, 1999
You might say this couple has been local football's biggest boosters. They attended every Tulane home game from 1955 until the last Wave appearance in Tulane Stadium in 1974. They were present at all three Super Bowls and dozens of New Orleans Saints games waged on Tulane turf. And they never once complained about their lousy seats.
Locked in a tiny room below the bleachers, without the comforts of air conditioning or heating, Got Thothi Aunk and Nefer Atethu languished quietly in this dark corner of Tulane Stadium until they were discovered a year before the stadium's 1980 demolition.
No ordinary football fans, Aunk and Atethu (or would it be Got and Nefer?) actually are two Egyptian mummies that have been part of Tulane University since its early days in the 1850s.
The odyssey of the two mummies--one male and one female--from ancient Thebes in 900 B.C. to the now-demolished "Sugar Bowl" stadium is a tale of grave-robbing globe-trotters, misguided "racial theorists" and, ultimately, university officials with too little exhibit space to house their considerable treasures.
Documenting this tale is Guido Lombardi, an anthropology graduate student. 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. Got Thothi Aunk and Nefer Atethu are the subjects of his master's thesis and a consuming passion of this confessed mummy-phile. Lombardi came to Tulane after winning a national prize for his research on a naturally preserved Peruvian mummy while earning his medical degree.
Although these mummies had been in Tulane's possession since the 1850s, when the university was called the University of Louisiana, few on campus seem to know of their existence. Lombardi 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 couldn't 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 Egyptian mummies were once people who witnessed one of the most brilliant moments in history, Lombardi says. "Their peers preserved their bodies for eternity and it is now Tulane's responsibility to keep them that way."
Lombardi took on the role of the mummies' champion on campus and began to learn all he could about them, during their lives and after their deaths. Tulane's part of the tale begins in the middle of the 19th century, when Got Thothi Aunk and Nefer Atethu were resurrected in this world.
The mummies' resurrection and their journey to Tulane 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. "Mr. Gliddon" even appears as a mummy expert in Edgar Allen Poe's 1845 story, "Some Words with a Mummy."
Lecturing while standing in front of 800-feet-long revolving backdrops of scenery along the Nile valley, Gliddon thrilled American audiences with tales of the exotic foreign land. 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 dealers lost most of them in a Nile River 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." Fortunately for Gliddon, he had an avocation to fall back on. Unfortunately for the field of scientific inquiry, his sideline was "racial theory."
Lombardi explains. "A year and a half later, Gliddon showed up in New Orleans, where the mummies were used by a group of physicians who proposed that the origin of man was not from a single source, that mankind had originated as different races. In essence, they were scientific racists."
Samuel Morton, a Philadelphia physician and craniologist, led this group, known as the American School of Anthropology, and its members included a young physician from Mobile, Ala., named Josiah Nott. Morton used measurements of skulls belonging to native peoples of North and South America--and, eventually, Egypt--to support his theory of polygenesis, the concept of multiple creations of races.
In his 1844 book, Crania Aegyptica; or, Observations on Egyptian Ethnography, Derived from Anatomy History and the Monuments, Morton proposed that ancient Egyptians were Caucasian and had enslaved blacks, news that thrilled Southern-ers promoting slavery in the United States. In honor of Morton's death, Gliddon and Nott collaborated on a book that would become a popular text on racial differences, Types of Mankind, in 1854.
Josiah Nott would serve a short term as an anatomy professor at Tulane, then called the medical department of the University of Louisiana, from 1857-58. His brother, Gustavus, had been a professor at the University of Louisiana in the early 1850s when Gliddon traveled to New Orleans delivering his "Egypt and the Nile lectures." Josiah Nott and Gliddon gave the male mummy to the university in 1851. Nefer Atethu, the female, was unrolled at Gallier Hall and presented to Tulane on Feb. 27, 1852.
Lombardi says he believes the enterprising Gliddon may have seen greener pastures elsewhere after his trip to New Orleans. "Gliddon probably faced some problems here, because he gave up the mummies as a present to the medical school," he says. "After that, he moved to Central America and joined another venture, a plan to construct a railway to connect the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans through Costa Rica."
Although information about his death is contradictory, Lombardi says, one source claims Gliddon committed suicide in Panama.
As Tulane artifacts, the mummies have had a nomadic existence. They resided in the medical school's 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. The natural history museum displayed the mummies among such effects as a towering elephant skeleton, a stuffed walrus, scores of fossils and the remains of Louisiana Indian mounds.
The museum was a popular attraction in town, and curator and geology professor Reinhard August Steinmayer gave public tours of the facility on Tuesday afternoons in the 1920s.
In 1927, Got Thothi Aunk and Nefer Atethu moved to the Middle American Research Institute in Dinwiddie Hall, then returned to Gibson Hall in 1930. The mid-1950s marked a dark period for the mummies, quite literally.
When the math department moved into Gibson's third floor, there was no room to display the mummies. Carefully boxed in their glass cases, the mummies spent from 1955 to 1979 in a dim, non-climate-controlled room under the bleachers in Tulane Stadium. There they remained, listed in an inventory of the university's art collection, but largely forgotten. Before the stadium's demolition, Tulane curator Bill Cullison "rediscovered" the mummies.
Cullison, who retired in 1992 after 23 years at Tulane, says the discovery was somewhat less dramatic than the discovery of King Tut's tomb, 55 years earlier, when Egyptologist Howard Carter reported seeing "gold, everywhere the glint of gold." The temporary "tomb" of Got Thothi Aunk and Nefer Atethu was nowhere near as resplendent.
"This was a tin building with a dirt floor in the area under the bleachers," Cullison says. "The mummies were sitting on top of their sarcophagi in a glass case. I was more shocked at the situation than spooked by the mummies."
The library placed one of the sarcophagi on display in the special collections division and sent the mummies to the medical center's campus for storage. The mummies returned to Howard-Tilton in 1982 and were stored in the basement until Lombardi's discovery two years ago.
As soon as Lombardi learned of the mummies' existence, he turned to the tools of his medical training to learn more about how Got Thothi Aunk and Nefer Atethu lived and why they died. At the radiology department of the Tulane University Medical Center, Lombardi examined the mummies using X-rays, CT scans and three-dimensional digital reconstruction. Identifying the male mummy was fairly simple. Lombardi relied on an old museum tag that identified Got Thothi Aunk.
"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 Thothi Aunk, 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."
From his research on the body, Lombardi believes Got Thothi Aunk was about 50 years old when he died, and the radiological evidence points to chronic periodontal disease and 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 dislocated symphysis pubis and both sacroiliac joints. 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 natron, a natural salt found in an oasis near Cairo. The natron remained on the body for 40 days to dehydrate it for better preservation.
Preparers coated the body with resin and other aromatic substances before wrapping the body in strips of linen 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." Preserving the body for resurrection was the goal behind the elaborate embalming techniques and funeral rituals. "Most of us want to believe in the afterlife, that we're resuscitated in some form," Lombardi says.
"The Egyptians believed in the afterlife and that, in order to get there, they needed their bodies." Although the Egyptians prepared the bodies of their dead for their resurrection in the afterlife, the fate of the bodies of Got Thothi Aunk and Nefer Atethu was certainly not what they had envisioned. Ripped from their eternal resting place along the banks of the Nile only to end up nearly forgotten beneath a football stadium along the banks of the Mississippi, Tulane's Egyptian mummies have been through a lot.
Lombardi aims to study the mummies in the future, although hopes of performing DNA analysis to explore a playful hunch that the female mummy is actually Meketaten, the daughter of the famous Egyptian queen, Nefertiti, were recently dashed by historic information he uncovered this spring.
Yet more than anything, Lombardi says he hopes to convey the riches these mummies offer to Tulane and how much they can tell us about themselves and about us. "I try to reconstruct the past to better understand our society and why we have disease," he says.
"Even though we live in an advanced society that has almost everything, we still have disease and we still die. The Egyptians were like us. They were a very wealthy people who had everything but they still had disease and they died. Even today, people could die of the very same conditions as these mummies. We can learn a lot from them."
"Mummy studies open a fragile window to the past," says anthropology graduate student Guido Lombardi. "They provide information about lifestyles and culture, disease and health." Got Thothi Aunk and Nefer Atethu, Tulane's two windows to ancient Egypt, still have plenty to reveal about themselves and the time in which they lived. Researchers continuously discover new techniques to analyze ancient human remains--including DNA sampling and endoscopic examination--that disclose new information about past civilizations.
Lombardi's faculty adviser, John Verano, assistant professor of anthropology, likens the study of human remains to reading a book. "A mummified body records the unique life history of that individual," Verano says. "It records everything from childhood growth and illness to adult diseases, injuries and lifestyle." Evidence of arthritis, for example, may indicate what people did with their hands and arms and what kind of professions they had, he says.
"People are also interested in how far back we can trace certain diseases," Verano says. "I like to imagine if we opened a health clinic in Egypt in 2000 B.C., what kind of complaints would people come in with? What kinds of diseases would you see?" Study of Egyptian mummies has revealed the presence of schistosomiasis (a parasitic disease that continues to plague Egypt), bone disorders and vascular diseases such as arteriosclerosis.
Evidence of these diseases in ancient populations sheds light on the causes of disease. The presence of arteriosclerosis, for example, shows that the stress of a modern, civilized life is not the sole cause of heart disease. Mummies come in a variety of forms, from the "artificial" mummies of ancient Egypt, where the bodies of the dead were painstakingly preserved according to elaborate embalming techniques and rituals, to the "natural" mummies who died in climates or locations conducive to preservation.
Natural mummies include "bog bodies" found in the peat bogs of northwestern Europe, and mummified bodies found in the arid deserts of South America. Unlike most Egyptian mummies, natural mummies usually contain a full set of preserved organs, each holding a wealth of information. "Great research has come out of South America on the intact natural mummies that still have intestinal tracts and stomachs," Verano says. "You can look at what their ultimate set of meals were and look at parasites in their intestinal tracts.
From that you can learn a lot about general community health." As fascinating and enlightening as mummies are, Verano says researchers are sensitive to the issues of performing research on the bodies of the dead. "All of us who work with human remains, whether skeletal or mummies or modern forensic cases, realize that these are the remains of once-living people," Verano says. "And, certainly, we all try to give the dead the respect they deserve."
Sometimes the bodies receive better treatment in death than they did when they were alive. Verano is currently studying the skeletons of 1,500-year-old sacrifice victims from Peru.
He was quoted in the March 1999 issue of Discover magazine pondering his treatment of the remains of these victims: "When I was brushing them off and cleaning the bones and putting them in boxes, I thought, 'The last time anybody touched you, they were cutting your throat or sticking sticks up your feet.' I treated them kindly, but it was a little late."
Judith Zwolak is an editor for the Office of University Publications, and managing editor of the faculty-staff newspaper, Inside Tulane. She is a regular contributor to Tulanian. This article originally appeared in the spring 1999 issue of Tulanian magazine.
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