“Mummies as you’ve never seen them before” proclaims the advert. The leaflet opens up to reveal an X-ray of a mummified cat and the back of an amulet engraved with hieroglyphics. The exhibition – the first temporary venture at the newly refurbished National Museum of Scotland (or for a less formal option here’s what I thought of it), Edinburgh running until the end of May – aims to take you deep into the folds of the linen wrappings, showing you all of the treasures, curiosities and rituals that went with Ancient Egypt’s most recognised process – all without physically unwrapping anything.
As you enter into the darkened exhibition room of Fascinating Mummies you are faced with a wall, a wall which (once you go around it) you discover makes up the end of a mock burial chamber, complete with incantation on the wall (in English, I’m not quite good enough to read hieroglyphics), a ‘back wall’ of illustrations and the sarcophagus sitting in pride of place in the centre.
This pretty much sets the tone for the whole exhibition, big, bold, packed with artefacts and bound to capture your imagination if you have even the remotest interest in anything Egyptian. After you’ve gazed at the sarcophagus you are led through a corridor of three sections, each giving you a brief summary of the most important parts (dates, notable Pharaohs, etc.) through the six dynastic periods on one side, and the main differences in the evolution of the burial/mummification process on the other.
Once you are acquainted with these basic facts you’re taken through the mummification process that results in what we know today as a ‘mummy’. Including – sparing indelicate language, but not leaving much to the imagination – what happened to the innards of the body, the reason and mythology behind the organ removal and other little details you wouldn’t immediately think of (like how do you stop the body from shrinking or collapsing without its internal filling).
In a very natural progression the exhibition then moves on to the burial tomb itself. How it was adorned, some of the scrolls and enchantments it included and how they believed that these provided the wherewithal to allow the deceased to be reborn into the eternal afterlife, how they should eat along the way and who would serve them for all eternity. This part is adorned with charms, amulets, figurines, stone slabs from tombs and a whole range of relevant artefacts.
At this point the exhibition puts its serious face on. Whilst what goes before is by no means a joke, the tone changes in the blink of an eye as it goes on a brief interlude to explain – in the regretful manner only hindsight can muster – how mummies were mistreated, dehumanised and destroyed during the subsequent centuries until their historical and archeological importance was realised.
Although entirely true, I think it is not there merely as a warning over the treatment of artefacts, but to provide the base to say why one of the oldest studies has been at the forefront of modern science and medical technology. Mummies have been put through many new non-invasive techniques, giving an ever-increasing insight into the lives, deaths and burial processes – and without a scalpel in sight. They’ve even done a mock-up of a recent CT scan done at Edinburgh University and how it’s being used to build 3D images and reveal the life of the plaster’s inhabitant. And explained how X-rays have proved that a mummified cat and other animals sold to European ‘pilgrims’ were not as genuine as they thought.
The final section of this exceptional display focuses in on just one man – Ankhor, the priest at the temple of Thebes. From this exceptionally well-preserved specimen (a curator ahead of his time stopped it from being opened up when it was brought to the Rijksmuseum van Oudheden collection) they have studied his life; deciphering the hieroglyphics and scanning the body to find his age, health (aside from the obvious fact that he’s rather dead) and how he was preserved for all eternity. The centrepiece of the section being his bandaged mummy and his sarcophagus, elaborately (and beautifully) decorated and inscribed.
There were a couple of things that bugged me during my trip – never do a museums course, I did one module as part of my degree and it has ruined me – just little things such as having to hunt for a few pieces which were some distance from their text boards, like they’d been moved when the display was being installed. Also, I know I border on OCD with things like this, but there’s such a thing as ‘justifying’ text. Just saying. But if I’m honest, I don’t think I’d have noticed these minuscule details if it hadn’t been drilled into my head keep an eye out for them, and they certainly don’t detract from the overall sense of wonder.
If it is not already rather obvious I would like to say, for the record, that I absolutely loved this exhibition. I was concerned when I got to the end with the speed I had gone through it (I thought I’d taken my time over almost every detail), however, a quick glance at my watch told me that I was clearly so engrossed that I had not noticed that almost two hours had passed me by! I know some people will be put off by the fact it has a price tag (the rest of the museum being free – something we should remember to be grateful for), but as this exhibition has been developed in collaboration with the Rijksmuseum van Oudheden in the Netherlands and is not going anywhere else in the UK this is your only chance to see this staggering collection on our shores – and believe me, it’s not something you are going to want to miss!
Fascinating Mummies is at the NMS until the 27th May and I for one will certainly be going again before that date comes around.
PS. As you aren’t allowed to take photos in the exhibition (for obvious reasons) these photos come from the museum’s permanent Egyptian collection (some on this trip and some from my last visit).