On a recent visit to the Field Museum, conservator JP Brown presided over a row of mummified animal remains that will soon be on public display as part of the forthcoming Mummies exhibition, which returns to its home in Chicago after traveling the U.S. for six years.
The exhibition includes one of the oldest mummies in the world, as well as others that, prior to its launch in 2012, hadn't been publicly displayed since the World's Columbian Exposition in 1893. Thanks to CT scan technology, which had been only been available for a decade prior to the exhibition’s launch, visitors can get a deeper look at the mummies—and can even digitally unwrap them to learn more about what’s inside.
Or in some cases, what isn’t.
“This is the Walgreens option, something off the shelf,” Brown says, holding up the smallest of three nearly-identical Egyptian cat mummies, which look like dirty rolled-up tube socks with pointy ears.
The small mummy actually has nothing inside and is typical of what a farmer or a serf would have been entombed with in order to have an offering to thank the gods in the afterlife.
“This is the Lord & Taylor version,” Brown says, moving down the line to a thicker mummy that, a CT scan revealed, has an entire cat inside. “The Egyptians were very accommodating about that sort of thing.”
Brown says the type of mummies most commonly associated with ancient Egypt are the “Rolls Royce” versions—think King Tut and the upper echelons of society. Mummies, meanwhile, offers a look at what Brown jokingly calls the “Volvo and the Pinto” versions, the mummies for the labor and underclass.
The exhibition is one of the largest collections of mummies in North America, with 14 human mummies, and features roughly 2,000 year-old artifacts from Egypt and even older South American mummies from modern-day Peru.
Unlike the more familiar practices from ancient Egypt where mummies were entombed and sealed away, Peruvian mummies were incorporated into regular social rituals, according to Janet Hong, the exhibition project manager for Mummies.
“Peruvian and Incan mummies would be taken out of the tombs for family gatherings and other traditions,” Hong explains. “With the Peruvian mummies, we had no idea what we’d find. In one case, we found a mother and newborn baby [wrapped together].”
The details of some of the smaller animal mummies from Egypt, which included a gazelle, an ibis, a baby crocodile and the array of cats, are fantastically rich despite being a few thousand years old.
“It has a real effect on you when you see the mummies together,” Hong says. The added interactivity thanks to the CT scanning technology is “mesmerizing.”
“You get to have a similar experience as the scientists,” she adds.
Unlike other natural history exhibitions that often show the inanimate objects that were tools during ancient life, Mummies offers a look at the actual humans (and animals) who lived those lives.
Brown, the conservator, mentions there’s something undeniably fascinating in seeing how ancient civilizations worried about a lot of the same things we do today, including how our material goods reflect our societal status and just how much fun we’ll have (or not) when we die.
Mummies opens at The Field Museum March 16 and runs until April 21, 2019. Special tickets required.