They may have lived more than two millennia ago, but two women—well, mummies—continue to teach us about Egyptian culture. The nearly 3,000-year-old mummies—the two centerpieces of the Denver Museum of Nature and Science’s Egyptian Mummies exhibit, which has been a popular fixture at the museum since the early 1990s—used to be known as just the “rich one” and the “poor one,” based on the quality of the linens they were wrapped in. But now, thanks to modern technology, we’re learning that their histories are much more intriguing.
As part of a recent upgrade to the exhibit completed in October 2017, a team of experts led by Michele Koons, the museum’s curator of archaeology, harnessed a host of scientific techniques to (figuratively) unwrap the mummies’ mysteries. The adventure began in April when the mummies were transported via a midnight ambulance ride to Children’s Hospital in Aurora to be CT scanned. The timing, says Koons, was due to scheduling; the scanners were only available in the middle of the night. The ambulance ride was to help ensure safe transport. “Ambulances are built with better shocks than most vehicles,” she says. “This is a typical way that mummies travel to hospitals.” And despite the late hour, she says, hospital staff were lined wall-to-wall to watch the event. “It was an exciting evening,” says Koons. “It felt like the paparazzi when we were rolling the mummies in.”
The results of the CT scans, as well as other tests, including radiocarbon dating and wood and pigment analyses, have completely changed previous interpretations about the mummies. The tests revealed that the two women actually lived 500 years apart, and the differences in their bodies’ preparation, decorations, and wrappings most likely reflect changes in how mummification was practiced during those periods, rather than each woman’s socioeconomic status, says Koons. “The radiocarbon dates are what solidified that the old narrative was not the proper one.”
We now know that the older, “rich” mummy lived about 2,900 years ago, during Egypt’s Third Intermediate Period, when the practice of mummification was at its peak. As was the norm for that period, her internal organs were removed, wrapped in linens, and returned to the body so that she had what Koons calls “all of her bits and pieces” with her for the afterlife.
Aesthetics seem to have been important during this period; the CT scans revealed that the older mummy has false eyes and hair extensions and that linens soaked in resins were crammed into her throat and mouth to give her a more life-like appearance. She was also buried with jewelry, including what appear to be a limestone heart amulet as well as small wax figures accompanying each organ bundle. “Finding the wax figures was pretty exciting,” says Koons, “because we didn’t have any idea that those were there.”
The younger mummy, by contrast, lived about 2,400 years ago during the Ptolemaic dynasty, the last of ancient Egypt and a time during which mummification was falling out of favor. Like the older mummy, the woman was in her 30s when she died, but her body is less well preserved. The organs were not removed, and the CT scans showed only a few objects, including a metal pin, inside far fewer layers of her lower-quality linen wrappings. Analysis of a single eyelash shows that her diet consisted mainly of barley and other crops grown on the fertile Nile soils.
“One of the most surprising finds is the mismatch between the mummies and their sarcophagi,” says Koons. Analysis of the paint pigments, wood, and hieroglyphs on the older woman’s elaborate coffin indicate that it was actually made for a man named Mes about 100 years after she died, whereas the 2,400-year-old mummy’s sarcophagus was constructed about 600 years before her death.” That’s really important and begs more questions as to when they were paired,” Koons says. She speculates that whoever sold the mummies to a private collector in the early 20th century swapped the original sarcophagi with those now on display, perhaps to give them more curb appeal—and in the process creating yet another mystery.
If you go: The Egyptian Mummies Exhibit is a permanent fixture at the Denver Museum of Nature & Science.