‘Mummies’ beginning 3-year U.S. tour shrouded in mystery
The 45 mummies and 95 artifacts in the show come from 15 museums in seven countries, said Marc Corwin, CEO of American Exhibitions Inc. The show opens Thursday at the California Science Center, then will go on a three-year tour across the country.
The 10-month-old baby, known as the Detmold child, is on loan from the Lippisches Landes museum in Detmold, Germany. The Orlovits family was with a group of mummies found in 1994 in a forgotten church crypt in Vac, Hungary. And Baron von Holz was a 17th-century nobleman who apparently died during the Thirty Years’ War in Sommersdorf, Germany.
The mummies are both natural and intentional and they often come with as many questions as answers, said Heather Gill-Frerking, an anthropologist and forensic archaeologist, as well as director of science and education for AEI.
Some curators agreed to contribute to the exhibition so that scientific tests could be conducted on remains, said Diane Perlov, senior vice president for exhibits at the science center.
Many of the tests – CT scans, X-rays, radio carbon dating, MRI, mass spectrometry, isotope analysis and DNA tests – were conducted as the mummies were being readied for shipment, Perlov said.
The exhibit is based on the work of the German Mummy Project, a group of experts from 15 European institutions based at the Reiss-Engelhorn Museums in Mannheim, Germany. Wilfried Rosendahl, the scientific head of the project, is curator of Mummies of the World.
Beside human mummies, there is a mummified bog dog, lizard, fish, rat, hyaena, cat, squirrel, falcon and a howler monkey from Argentina, Corwin said.
Perlov described an Egyptian woman, her arms crossed over her chest like royalty and her fists closed. Noninvasive tests revealed that in each clenched fist, she clutched the tiny tooth of a child. It was not immediately known why.
Another mummy, also from Egypt, was found to have a number of teeth stuffed in a head cavity. “One theory is that in order to reach the afterlife, you have to be a complete body. These may have been his teeth and they needed to be reacquainted with the body,” Perlov said.
Mystery, history and curiosity will lure what Corwin expects will be record-breaking crowds. But expect some couch potatoes, too.
Millions of TV viewers have gotten used to shows such as the CSI and Bones, which revolve around identifying remains. The jargon and testing methods have become familiar. For fans of documentaries on the Discovery, History and National Geographic channels, some of the hows, whys and wheres have been answered, too.
Gill-Frerking works with an international collaborative team of brilliant anthropologists, geneticists, biologists, chemists and botanists, but an actress may have aimed the biggest spotlight on forensics, at the same time inspiring women to pursue science.
NCIS is probably one of my very favorite shows ever, and I watch it in English and German. I’m a Pauley Perrette fan. I love the work that Pauley Perrette is able to do in the lab. I think she gives a phenomenal boost to science and for women in science,” Gill-Frerking said.
Perrette plays the Goth-looking but genius Abby Sciuto on the top-rated television drama.
People are naturally curious and they often ask questions you don’t anticipate, Gill-Frerking said. “Did kids go to school 5,000 years ago? Maybe. Possibly. Probably not in the way we think about it,” Gill-Frerking said.
People also have come to expect a lot out of DNA, she said. “Ancient DNA questions come up a lot. It works brilliantly on CSI, but it doesn’t always work on mummies. First of all, it can be destructive. And it doesn’t always give us answers.”
Because the exhibit is playing to a sophisticated audience, “Mummies of the World” has ramped up its multimedia displays, allowing people to learn what a mummy feels like (Gill-Frerking says a bog body feels like an old, crackly leather coat), view a mummified tooth under a microscope and look at a photo of a 3-D body scan, among other things.
No matter how many tests are invented, there are going to be answers that went to the grave with some mummies – such as the woman tattooed with ovals containing small circles.
“It’s clearly got some kind of meaning and it had a purpose – I’m willing to bet,” said Gill-Frerking.
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