Ancient mummies that haven’t been seen in over a century are now on display — and you can see inside them for the first time.
One of the largest mummy-centric displays in North America, “Mummies” at the American Museum of Natural History is made up of 18 bodies from Egypt and Peru, which was actually the first country with a culture that preserved its dead.
The recent history of mummies has been rough, says co-curator David Hurst Thomas. Many of the mummies haven’t been seen since the 1893 World’s Fair in Chicago, not exactly the proper venue for viewing the dead, and have gone from sideshow curiosities to the “terrorists of the film world.” “Mummies” is about reminding us that these were real people.
“We don’t let very many kids see dead bodies anymore, and not many kids have watched a birth,” he says. “This is a family show, but it present ancestors in a different way.”
To help visitors connect with these mummies, some of them buried over 5,000 years ago, the museum used a slew of new technologies. DNA testing, 3D scanning and molecular analysis have helped them look inside the mummies without unwrapping them and create 3D images that can be explored on interactive digital tables throughout the exhibit.
It also helped a wax sculptor create eerily lifelike replicas of two of the exhibit’s tenants, the Gilded Lady who lived during the time of Roman conquest in Egypt, and a teenager mysteriously interred in a coffin two centuries older than him. Some of the items they were buried with have been scanned and replicated using a 3D printer and can be handled by visitors.
“Not only do we have the reality of real mummies, but we have a new virtual science reality that lets us open these mummy bundles and see what’s inside,” explains Thomas.
While the ornate sarcophagus and labyrinthine pyramids of the Egyptians are well known and on grand display here, it’s the Peruvian rituals that will really raise some eyebrows. The mummification process of the Peruvians went far beyond mere organ removal. About 5,000 years ago, the Chinchorros removed all of the flesh and innards, then put the skeleton back together with reeds and clay and reattached the skin.
Mummification was often done by the families of the deceased, with the body embalmed and wrapped into a simple cloth — making them light and portable enough to be brought out from their graves for special occasions and festival.
Alas, mummification has fallen out of favor. Though dozens of societies practiced it in South America alone, there are no known cultures still practicing it today. If you’ve got your heart set on it though, Summum in Utah will mummify and entomb you in a sarcophagus and pyramid of your own design for $75,000 — or $4,000 for the doggie best friend you want with you in the afterlife.