Fascinating Relics

Smithsonian’s wide-ranging mummy collection still speaks to us from centuries past

Smithsonian American Art Museum

There are mummies by design and mummies by accident. The best-known mummies, human and animal, are probably those that underwent elaborate embalming and burial procedures in ancient Egypt. Indeed, for most people, the word "mummy" is pretty much synonymous with the Egyptian variety. But culturally induced mummification has been practiced throughout history—by the Chinese, the Incas and the Alaskan Aleuts, for example. Then, too, nature sometimes takes its own unpredictable course toward desiccation: in a display case in the middle of the room where scientists at the National Museum of Natural History (NMNH) store the Smithsonian's collection of mummified remains, there lies a mummy who wears not the bandages of old Egypt but knee-high stockings, and whose home was late-18th-century Philadelphia. Soon after burial, water seeped into the fellow's casket, and through a natural chemical process of hydrolysis working on body fat, the corpse was saponified—turned into soap. The accidental mummy was found by accident, too, in the 1870s, when the grave site was cleared for construction in old downtown Philadelphia.

There are larger mummy collections than the Smithsonian's, but few, if any, are more representative. In addition to Egyptian specimens—5 intact and another 15 to 20 that were disassembled and autopsied by researchers years ago—NMNH keeps remains from Mexico, New Mexico, Peru, Brazil, New Zealand, New Guinea and the Aleutian Islands. Nearly all of the museum's 36 Aleutian mummies date from expeditions to Alaska in the 1870s and the 1930s. The intent is not to exploit any of these individuals for display but to learn from them about the past, about cultural practices, ecology, diet, pathways of disease, patterns of migration. The Aleutian remains, for instance, have been helpful to research on the peopling of the Americas—who came first to the continents, and when, and how?—questions that now are being investigated in collaboration with native groups. But the study of all such remains puts them at risk—of physical invasion, through autopsies, and of spiritual invasion, through insufficient regard for a people's religious beliefs. The pioneering work of NMNH anthropologists Bruno Frohlich and David Hunt seeks to avoid invasiveness of any kind. Their research has its basis in computerized axial tomography, a weighty term for a technology with a touch so light as to be imperceptible: the CAT scan, the same X-ray process that has revolutionized medical practice. Thanks to the generosity of the Siemens Corporation, NMNH now has a scanner of its own (the only museum to have one), and mummified remains can be read and studied while left completely intact. Thus, mummies wrapped in furs, skins and blankets of grass, and resting in backpacks and bundles, enter the white cave of the scanner, and the scanned images reveal the integrity or deterioration of joints and teeth, the erosion of nasal bones (ravaged perhaps by disease), and objects familiar from life, as small as decorative beads, placed with the body to ease its final journey. And every bundle emerges from the scanner unharmed.

Contrast this with practices of decades past. The collection includes the disjointed pieces of an Egyptian mummy, identified years ago through destructive autopsy as a teenage girl who died in childbirth with the child still inside her. What seem at first glance, and second, too, no more than wooden chips near the larger pieces of the body are the remains of the baby. Today, there would be no need to unwrap or disassemble the mummy to learn her story. Technology has given us a better means of conducting this sort of inquiry into the past and writing the history of individuals who, all unwittingly, have become ambassadors from their civilizations to a later time. In the mummies' stillness, our careful researchers detect movement; in their silence, they hear life.

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