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Comparing the Afterlives of Peruvian and Egyptian Mummies

A double-spouted jar with the face of a jaguar, made in the Paracas culture (800– 100 BCE). Ceramics like this were often buried with the mummified dead (© 2015 The Field Museum, photo by John Weinstein)
A double-spouted jar with the face of a jaguar made in the Paracas culture (800–100 BCE). Ceramics like this were often buried with the mummified dead (© 2015 The Field Museum, photo by John Weinstein)

Chicago’s Field Museum is touring its mummies for the first time, and their inaugural stop is the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles CountyMummies: New Secrets from the Tombs, which opens September 18, explores the similarities and differences between traditions of mummification in ancient Egypt and Peru.

The Gilded Lady mummy, intact since Roman-era Egypt (30 BCE – AD 395). The interior of the mummy was finally revealed in 2011 with CT scanning. (© 2015 The Field Museum, photo by John Weinstein)
The Gilded Lady mummy, intact since Roman-era Egypt (30 BCE–395 CE). The interior of the mummy was finally revealed in 2011 with CT scanning. (© 2015 The Field Museum, photo by John Weinstein) (click to enlarge)

Another major component of the exhibition are the results of scanning begun in 2006 that progressed from X-rays to CT scans. Touch-table digital screens allow visitors to explore new forensic reconstructions, and 3D-printed objects re-create figurines and other objects from beyond the wrappings. For example, in the case of a Late Period Egyptian mummy, rather than canopic jars, preserved organs were reinserted in the chest cavity, and scanning revealed wax sculptures of the sons of Horus embedded in the preserved flesh.

Some of these findings were included in the 2012 exhibition Opening the Vaults: Mummies at the Field Museum, which was also the first time in a century that some of the institution’s mummies had gone on public view. Included in the touring exhibition of 20 mummies are artifacts associated with burial and recreations of the two cultures’ respective practices, with a Chancay culture burial pit for Peru and a 26th Dynasty tomb for Egypt.

“The tradition of mummification in Northern Chile and Peru and right up through Central America, that’s a much longer tradition [than Egypt] that goes from about 5000 BC through to the arrival of the Spanish and Portuguese,” JP Brown, Regenstein Conservator for Pacific Anthropology at the Field Museum, told Hyperallergic. “Whereas in Egypt there are mummies which look somewhat similar to the Peruvian ones, and those start from 3000 BC and it goes through to just after the introduction of Christianity.”

He added that both regions have similar physical environments, as they are “very dry,” and after death the main challenge of mummification is drying out the body before bacterial decay. “These are environments in which that can naturally occur,” he said.

Replica of a Chinchorro mummy mask. The Chinchorro people, who lived in what is now Peru and Chile, were the world’s first practitioners of mummification, thousands of years before the Egyptians. (© 2015 The Field Museum, photo by John Weinstein)
Replica of a Chinchorro mummy mask. The Chinchorro people, who lived in what is now Peru and Chile, were the world’s first practitioners of mummification, thousands of years before the Egyptians. (© 2015 The Field Museum, photo by John Weinstein)

The style of mummification may be the most apparent difference between the two civilizations’ burial rituals: the Chinchorro mummies of Peru were often curled in bundles irrespective of social differentiation, while Egyptian mummies were stretched out flat and mummified very differently according to class. More revealing are the acts of visitation. Brown said that in Peru, “sometimes they brought the bundles back up, which was certainly not the case in Egypt where you put people in their tomb and had a separate chapel.” During this opening of a Peruvian tomb, people might bring the dead food or other posthumous supplies. “Just because these people were dead didn’t mean they no longer participated in the community, but with Egyptians you’re definitely dead and you’re in the afterlife,” Brown said.

There are plans to bring the exhibition to other natural history museums following Los Angeles. The CT scanning, in revealing more personal details of each mummy, has restored some degree of humanity to the mummies. The exhibition considers them as individuals, whether a Peruvian woman with her child, or the Gilded Lady from Roman-era Egypt, whose curly hair was discovered through scanning. “This Gilded Lady reminds me of the photos of my mother-in-law in her 40s,” Brown said. “You start to think about how they were exactly people with the same problems, just different solutions available to them.” Especially when it came to the afterlife.

An ancient Egyptian mummy known as the Gilded Lady, with a headdress made of cartonage (glued layers of papyrus or linen) and covered with gilding. The golden skin signified divinity (© 2015 The Field Museum, photo by John Weinstein)
An ancient Egyptian mummy known as the Gilded Lady, with a headdress made of cartonage (glued layers of papyrus or linen) and covered with gilding. The golden skin signified divinity. (© 2015 The Field Museum, photo by John Weinstein)
A painted coffin with a mummy inside, from the late 25th Dynasty or early 26th Dynasty of ancient Egypt, approximately 700 to 600 BCE (© 2015 The Field Museum, photo by John Weinstein)
A painted coffin with a mummy inside, from the late 25th Dynasty or early 26th Dynasty of ancient Egypt (approximately 700–600 BCE) (© 2015 The Field Museum, photo by John Weinstein)
Eye of Horus, the falcon god, on a detail of an ancient Egyptian coffin (© 2015 The Field Museum, photo by John Weinstein)
Eye of Horus, the falcon god, on a detail of an ancient Egyptian coffin (© 2015 The Field Museum, photo by John Weinstein)
Fragment of a sarcophagus of Late–Ptolemaic Egypt (664–30 BCE). When complete the limestone sarcophagus would have weighed several thousand pounds (© 2015 The Field Museum, photo by John Weinstein)
Fragment of a sarcophagus of Late–Ptolemaic Egypt (664–30 BCE). When complete, the limestone sarcophagus would have weighed several thousand pounds. (© 2015 The Field Museum, photo by John Weinstein)
A mummified baby crocodile, buried as an offering to an ancient Egyptian god (© 2015 The Field Museum, photo by John Weinstein)
A mummified baby crocodile, buried as an offering to an ancient Egyptian god (© 2015 The Field Museum, photo by John Weinstein)
Limestone canopic jars from Egypt’s Third Intermediate Period (ca. 1069-664 BCE) (© 2015 The Field Museum, photo by John Weinstein)
Limestone canopic jars from Egypt’s Third Intermediate Period (ca. 1069–664 BCE) (© 2015 The Field Museum, photo by John Weinstein)
Cuchimilco (guardian figurine) buried with the mummified remains of a Chancay person in Peru (© 2015 The Field Museum, photo by John Weinstein)
Cuchimilco (guardian figurine) buried with the mummified remains of a Chancay person in Peru (© 2015 The Field Museum, photo by John Weinstein)

Mummies: New Secrets from the Tombs runs September 18, 2015–January 18, 2016 at the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County (900 Exposition Boulevard, Los Angeles).

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