Last year, a team of archaeologists at the University of Sydney opened a coffin not expecting to find anything remarkable. The coffin had come into the care of the University's Nicholson Museum in 1860 marked as empty—and has since been assumed to be a mere case filled with debris.
But when scientists scanned its innards, they made an intriguing discovery: The 2,500-year-old Egyptian coffin contained mummified human remains, writes The Washington Post’s Amy B. Wang.
The coffin dates back to the sixth century B.C.E., and hieroglyphics suggest it belonged to noblewoman Mer-Neith-it-es, who served the goddess of the Temple of Sekhmet, writes senior curator Jamie Fraser for the March issue of the university’s magazine Muse. Sir Charles Nicholson, purchased the mummy from an Egyptian antiquities market in the late 1850s. While serving as the university’s chancellor, he donated the sarcophagus along with hundreds of other artifacts to found the museum, Michelle Starr reports for Science Alert.
For decades, the coffin sat in an acrylic case in a classroom used for workshops, overshadowed by more impressive artifacts in the museum’s collection. It hadn't been opened in 20 years, Fraser writes. Though researchers didn't think it contained a mummy, it was unclear what composed the "mixed debris" inside, as it is described in the museum's database. So last summer, museum archaeologists took a peek inside.
After removing the ornate lid, they found a surprising array of human bones, bandages, beads and more. “To find such an assemblage in 2017 is extraordinary—and a striking testament to the richness and depth of the Nicholson collection,” Fraser writes. “Coffins were usually purchased in the 19th and early 20th centuries with complete mummies, although the mummy they contained was not always the coffin’s original occupant. On the rare occasion coffins were obtained with mummified debris, curatorial staff usually disassembled the remains seeking objects for display.”
The museum’s collection includes three complete mummies for which X-rays and CT scans were completed in the late 1990s: two adult mummies in the coffins of Meruah and Padiashiakhet, and one child mummy of a boy known as Horus, who was later scanned again in 2009.
Since the newly found remains within Mer-Neith-it-es' coffin had never been studied, the team analyzed it using a CT scanner before excavating the mummy. With the help of the Macquarie Medical Imaging team at Macquarie University Hospital, the researches scanned the remains inside Mer-Neith-it-es' coffin as well as the other three mummies.
The captured images of Mer-Neith-it-es' coffin revealed a mixed up skeleton, but included two mummified ankles, feet and toes, likely belonging to a single person at least 30 years old. However, it’s unclear whether the remains actually belong to Mer-Neith-it-es. At the time the coffin was purchased, they were popular souvenirs, and interested buyers could request a mummy be included for an extra fee, regardless of whether or not the pair were a match, Wang writes.
Researchers then began a physical examination, according to ABC, sifting through layers of debris. While mummy excavations are rare today due to ethical concerns over disturbing human remains, the Mer-Neith-it-es coffin was in such poor shape that it was the best option for preservation.
Egyptologist Connie Lord tells ABC the excavation led to another discovery: Resin was poured into the mummy's skull after its brain was removed. The same had been discovered of Tutankhamun, the most famous mummy ever found.
The project is only at the beginning stages, and it can take months or even years before researchers learn more about the remains, including whether they actually belong to Mer-Neith-it-es.
As Starr reports, the four coffins are expected to go on display at the new Chau Chak Wing Museum at the university, set to open in 2020, along with digital CT animations detailing the secrets of what each holds inside.