Fascinating Mummies: the National Museum of Scotland looks at Egyptian art of death

By Jenni Davidson | 06 March 2012
A photograph of a square wooden chest with a picture of the goddess Isis and hieroglyphics on it
Canopic chest of Amenhotep
© Rijksmuseum van Oudheden
Fascinating Mummies, National Museum of Scotland, Edinburgh, until May 27 2012

The Egyptians are perhaps more famous for their way of death than their way of life and there are few sights as romantic and iconic as the pyramids. For centuries travellers have been fascinated by the Egyptian world of the dead and the afterlife.

The ancient Egyptian concept of dying to be reborn meant that it was important to preserve the body to act as a physical anchor for the spirit, so the ancient Egyptians became expert in mummification, the artificial preservation of a body.

Mummies is an appropriate and popular choice then for the National Museum of Scotland’s first major international exhibition since its refurbishment last July.

As well as showcasing the museum’s new exhibition space, Fascinating Mummies brings out some of the highlights from the National Museum of Scotland’s extensive Egyptian collection, which features thousands of objects, including coffins and mummies.

A photograph of a mummy with an x-ray of the skeleton inside it
Mummy and x-ray of Ankhhor, a temple priest
© Rijksmuseum van Oudheden
The exhibition also borrows significant treasures from Rijksmuseum van Oudheden, the National Museum of Antiquities in Leiden, the Netherlands, which has one of the world’s leading collections of ancient Egyptian artefacts.

It wasn’t just humans that were preserved though, and the exhibition also includes mummies of a cat, a crocodile and an ibis, who were believed to the sacred creatures of the gods Sobek, Bastet and Thoth.

The science behind the study of mummies is a big part of what the exhibition is about. According to Maureen Barry, exhibition officer for Fascinating Mummies, one of the aims of the exhibition is to show that museums do more than just put objects in glass cases.

“We aim to bring the behind-the-scenes to the forefront,” she says. “Behind the scenes there is so much research work. This time we’re actually putting the findings into the public domain and letting them see what we do in the labs. People are hooked on programmes with this investigative side to them.”

New scientific developments have vastly improved what can be learned about mummies and the way the bodies are handled.

In the 16th and 17th centuries mummies were hardly treated as human remains. They were opened as a public spectacle and they were often used as curios or sold as souvenirs. The bodies were also ground down to make mummia powder or mummy brown paint.

Until very recently it was still necessary to unwrap mummies to learn about them - a process that was invasive and caused irreversible damage. However, modern technology, such as x-rays and CT scans, make it possible to find out more information than ever before without unwrapping them.

Facial reconstruction can now actually show us what the person looked like and it is hoped that ancient DNA testing will soon be possible.

A photograph of two ancient Egyptian coffins
Coffins of Amenhotep
© Rijksmuseum van Oudheden
The exhibition is organised on a timeline in two parts. The first looks at the ancient Egyptians themselves, their culture and society, why they mummified, and their burial practices, amulets, tools, spells, papyri, coffins, tomb architecture and the 5,000 years it took them to perfect the art of mummification.

The second part journeys through the history of Egyptology and how the study of the ancient Egyptians has changed over the centuries.

One of the key figures mentioned in this second section is the 19th century Scottish archaeologist Alexander Henry Rhind, who is significant not just for the artefacts he discovered, but for the careful way he recorded his findings.

According to Maureen Barry he was “an early archaeologist who had a real feel for the subject matter.”

The Rhind mummy is one of the highlights of the exhibition, as so much work has been done on studying it.

The exhibition ends with a case study of Ankhhar, who was a temple priest in Thebes (modern Luxor) around 650BC and this one mummy sums up everything that has been shown in the exhibition.

He wasn’t unwrapped, but researchers have been able to learn more from studying the hieroglyphics and scanning the body than if they had opened it up. It is even possible to make a 3D copy of the amulet underneath Ankhar without removing it from its position.

Fascinating Mummies is a very special chance not only to see world-class Egyptian artefacts, but also to find out how we know what we know about them.

  • Open 10am-5pm. Admission £6-£9 (family tickets available). Book online.
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