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Unwrapping the Mummy

Frank Teichert, Curator Archaeology and Human Remains, DITSONG: National Museum of Cultural History, takes an in-depth look at the mummies in the DITSONG collection.

DITSONG National Museum of Cultural History mummy mummification
DITSONG: National Museum of Cultural History PHOTO Leoa’s Photography

Why are so many people fascinated by mummies and the dead? Is it because there is something strange about standing next to a fellow human being who has been dead for hundreds or even thousands of years? Or is it because it is a real human and not a statue or model? Maybe it is because the individual is neither part of this world or the ‘other’ world. To the living, it seems as if mummies were able to somehow cheat death, and possibly this is the fascination. The main question we want to answer is: Why did so many ancient people want to preserve their dead in the first place?

What is mummification?
A mummy is defined as any preserved human or animal body. For many, the term implies intent: people preserving their dead because they wanted to. In most times and places where mummification flourished, climatic conditions caused natural mummification before people started to elaborate on the process. There are examples in the archaeological record of both natural preservation and the fully-planned, religiously motivated preservation of people as practised by the ancient Egyptians. People have adapted and modified the natural process in different ways, from the simple use of embalming ointments to the total removal of flesh and replacing it with sticks, padding and earth – as the first mummy-makers did 9 000 years ago. 

DITSONG National Museum of Cultural History mummy mummification
DITSONG: National Museum of Cultural History PHOTO Leoa’s Photography

Mummified human remains, ranging from 10 000 years old to just a few years, have been found all around the world. The Egyptians were not the only ones to mummify their deceased. Many mummies are chance preservations. A good example is the famous Ice Man of the Alps found in 1991, who died there by accident more than 5 000 years ago. In South Africa (in the Eastern Cape), archaeologists found a naturally mummified San body in a cave a few years ago, which was more than 2 000 years old.
     Why did people want to preserve their dead for posterity? The reasons are varied, and often little known and understood. Most mummy-makers, with the exception of the Egyptians, were illiterate and left no written records. The concern with death (and the afterlife) is nearly as old as humanity itself. Many archaeologists believe that the ancient Neanderthals buried their dead, covering them with red ochre and possibly even putting flowers on their graves. Oral traditions and the earliest written records see the transition from life to death as a journey, with the human soul travelling on a path towards sunset, into darkness or the underworld, where it faces a series of trials and gets delivered into the land of the dead.
     This may be the main reason for mummification, preserving the body as a recognisable home for the soul, cheating death, and helping the deceased to travel in the underworld in roughly the same form he or she would have had during life in this world. It prevented the physical body from decaying and losing its human shape and form.

DITSONG National Museum of Cultural History mummy mummification
Mummy head

A short history of DITSONG’s famous mummy: 
The mummy dates to approximately 175 AD and is therefore roughly 2 000 years old. It belongs to the Graeco-Roman period of Egyptian history. Egypt became a Roman province after the Battle of Actium in 31 BC when Rome defeated the Egyptians under Cleopatra. The Faiyum district, where the mummy comes from, is located west of Cairo and in the fertile Nile Delta, this area was popular for Greek and Roman settlers during this time. The Graeco-Roman inhabitants started to mummify some of their dead, mimicking the Egyptians. The mummification processes involved and results obtained were different, however.

Why do we have it? 
It has been part of the National Museum of Cultural History’s collection since 1899. It was shipped from Cairo to Cape Town and brought by wagon to Pretoria. It is uncertain how it got into the hands of the previous owner (a Mr Klimke). The story of how the Museum received the mummy is quite interesting; the legend is that the owner arrived at the Museum on his bicycle with the mummy strapped to his back. During Victorian times, there was a thriving trade in buying and selling mummies.

DITSONG National Museum of Cultural History mummy mummification

The mummy mask 
Death masks depicting the deceased were put on these mummies. Masks on thin pieces of wood were painted with a combination of beeswax and different pigments. Only the rich and people of high status could afford mummification. The mask in the Museum’s collection shows a young man in his early 30s. These masks are very rare and only about 700 of them are known to exist.

Other human mummified remains in the Museum collection:

The Head
Donated to the Museum by FJ Read of Johannesburg in 1921. According to information in the old registers, it dates to the Second Archaic Period, and belongs to the Wife of Herodotus, the King of Ecbatana. It is over 2 700 years old, and was obtained from the Royal tombs at Ecbatana, the capital of Media. This evidence has, however, not been verified.

The Foot
Age and origin unknown. Presented to the Museum by a Mrs Munro in the previous century. Exact date unknown.

The Korana/San Mummy
Donated to the former Transvaal Museum (now DITSONG: National Museum of Natural History) by Dr F Ludorf. According to the information, it is of Korana descent and was found, together with a second skull, in a cave west of Bronkhorstspruit. Mummified naturally. It is not certain if this information is correct, it is difficult at this stage to determine.

DITSONG National Museum of Cultural History mummy mummification
Egyptian mummification

Animal Mummies
Why mummify animals? The Egyptians believed that certain animals possessed divine powers. This led to a cult of sacred animals, birds and reptiles. Inside temples, they kept live cats, bulls, ibises or hawks, worshipped them as gods, and mummified and buried them when they died. In the Faiyum area, large numbers of mummified crocodiles (representing the god Sobek), complete with clutches of eggs, have been found.

The Museum’s falcons
The Museum has two mummified falcons in its collection. Their age and exact origin is not known. They represent the falcon-headed god Horus, one of the more important of ancient Egyptian gods.

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