The Bible and modern scholarship may be at odds over whether Israelites were enslaved in ancient Egypt, but there is no question that the Jewish association with that land is strong, both historically and according to tradition.
Thus, the current exhibition, Egyptian Mummies: Exploring Ancient Lives, which is showing at the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts (MMFA) until February, is generating considerable interest in the community.
This is the North American premiere of the show, which blends art, science and technology. The big draw is six actual mummies on loan from the British Museum.
In keeping with the International Council of Museums’ code of ethics, the utmost respect is accorded these men, women and a child who lived between 900 BCE and 180 CE.
“It is with great reverence that we welcome (them),” said MMFA director general and chief curator Nathalie Bondil at the exhibition opening in September. “We are honoured to host these extraordinary witnesses of our common ancestry, so that they may share with us their cultures and trades, their beliefs and sufferings, in a word, their lives.”
More than 240 accompanying objects, also from the British Museum, provide additional context.
Advanced technology has enabled the British Museum to penetrate what lies beneath the layers of bandages in which the six people are bound. Until recently, very little was known about who they were, as the British Museum has always had a policy of not unwrapping or employing any invasive interventions on the mummies it conserves.
Using three-dimensional CT scans, researchers found that the bodies were remarkably well preserved. The embalmers’ goal was to preserve the body, to ensure that the person’s spirit and vital energy re-emerged in the afterlife.
Museum officials on hand for the opening say their understanding of the techniques of mummification, as well as ancient Egyptians’ funerary rituals and beliefs about the afterlife, have been significantly enhanced as a result of the research.
Daniel Antoine, the British Museum’s curator of bioarcheology and exhibition co-curator, explained: “The latest scanning technology has allowed us to virtually peel away the layers of wrappings. In unprecedented detail, we have discovered new insights into life and death in ancient Egypt, such as the embalming methods used to preserve the bodies and their state of health at death. We can begin to understand the person behind the mask, while ensuring their integrity remains.”
His co-curator, Egyptologist Marie Vandenbeusch, said the British Museum has 80 Egyptian mummies that were collected since its founding in the 1750s. Most were acquired in the 19th century from private European collectors.
The MMFA’s curator of archeology, Laura Vigo, said that Egypt is onside with the exhibition and has made no claims on anything or anyone in it.
Time-lapse videos in the exhibition show the process of penetrating the mummies down to the skeleton.
CT scanners combine x-rays and sophisticated computer software to create an image. The x-rays encircle the body, creating thousands of transversal images. That data is then gathered by software that produces detailed 3D visualizations from the surface, to the deepest interior of the mummified person.
Scientists can thereby determine the person’s sex, height, diet, illnesses and approximate age at death. Historians are able to use this data to piece together information on family life and cultural practices.
Each of the six mummies is encased in elaborately decorated, body-hugging sarcophagi with a mask of their likeness. They are displayed in their own galleries under glass.
The oldest is Tamut, who lived in Thebes around 900 BCE. She is described as a chantress of Amun. The many amulets placed on her body are believed to have helped her gain immortality.
The most prominent in his time was probably Irthorru, a high priest of Akhmin, who lived around 600 BCE.
Both were approximately 35-49 years old when they began their journey to the next world.
The child is a two-year-old boy from Hawara who lived during the later Roman period. Before then, mummification of children was rare. Some of the most touching objects on view are toys from the period, including a wooden pony on wheels.
Before coming to Montreal, the exhibition was put on in Sydney, Brisbane, Hong Kong and Taiwan.
Egyptian Mummies: Exploring Ancient Lives continues until Feb. 2 at the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts.