Mummy’s the Word — Field Museum exhibit showcases a treasure trove of previously undisplayed mummies
BY MISHA DAVENPORT February 15, 2012 6:06PM
"Opening the Vaults: Mummies" exhibition at The Field Museum. Monday, February 13, 2012. | John H. White~Chicago Sun-Times.
† Feb. 17-April 22
† Field Museum,
1400 S. Lake Shore
† Tickets: $22-$29 adults; $18-$24 seniors; $15-$20, kids 4-11
† (312) 922-9410;
Updated: February 16, 2012 6:54AM
The Field is taking the wraps off of their latest exhibit — figuratively as well as literally.
“Opening the Vaults: Mummies” gives museumgoers an opportunity to see a majority of the largest collection of mummies in the United States.
“Our Egyptian mummies were purchased from the Egyptian government at the time of the World’s Columbian Exposition of 1893 and half of them haven’t been on display since then,” says Robert D. Martin, the A. Watson Armour III curator of biological anthropology at the Field Museum.
More than 20 mummified individuals from Egypt and Peru will now be on display. Some will be shown in their original 19th century display cases.
For the first time since the mummies were purchased, you also will be able to peek beneath the wrappings —thanks to three-dimensional scans that allow you to see behind the centuries-old wrappings at a level previously impossible.
Several Egyptian and Peruvian mummies from the Field’s extensive collection were given CT scans in the museum parking lot thanks to a CT machine on loan from Genesis Medical Imaging in far northwest Huntley, Ill.
“We had a CT scanner in the west lot of the museum for a week over the summer and had a team carefully wheeling seven Egyptian and three Peruvian mummies out to the machine,” Martin says. “Thanks to the 3-D imaging from the machines, we can dissect the mummies on the computer screen and see what is inside without actually damaging them.”
One of the Egyptian mummies scanned and studied was a 14-year-old boy. His sculpted and carved sarcophagus indicates he was the son of a priest. And thanks to Genesis Medical Imaging’s machine, he had his first dental check-up of sorts.
“His teeth are very interesting,” Martin says. “He has no signs of wisdom teeth. They weren’t extracted; he just doesn’t have them in his jaw bone. Congenitally, they never formed.”
Another Egyptian mummy, that of a 30- to 40-year-old woman, showed some major dental problems.
“A couple of her teeth had decay from grinding, and she was missing a few teeth, too,” Martin says.
Dental insight wasn’t the only thing that was gained, however.
“In the case of the boy, there was a skull depression over the crown of his head. His skull is elongated and this indicates cranial deformation as a result of head binding from birth,” Martin says. “The elite in Egyptian society would bind their infants’ heads and literally change the shape of the head as a mark of social status.”
Sex, age and cause of death weren’t the only things revealed. One of the female Peruvian mummies turned out to be clutching a “secret” close to her chest.
“She was mummified with her knees to her chest, so it was difficult to initially see, but she was a mother who died in childbirth and she was mummified with her newborn,” Martin says.
The scans also provided details of just how the bodies were mummified.
“With Egyptian mummification, there are three categories,” explains Martin. “At the top are people like King Tut, basically pharaohs and immediate family. No expense was spared in the process. The organs were removed very carefully and put in canopic jars. The brain was removed from nose region through skull. And cavities from the removal of the organs would have been filled with cloth-soaked resins and the body would have also been treated with resin and wrapped carefully. That was the full deal. Then you have the middle ranks, which is where most of our mummies come from. These people were palace advisers and the wealthy. The mummification process was still detailed, but abbreviated. Perhaps resin-soaked cloth is not present in the cavities, for instance. The third group would have been everyone else. While those mummies would have been wrapped, they would have been rush jobs and as a result they would not be as well preserved.”
Unlike their Egyptian counterparts, Peruvian remains featured in the exhibition were not embalmed.
“There are dry, desert conditions in Peru, and the dry heat actually mummified them,” Martin says.
Martin says this exhibit is more than just a display of ornate sarcophaguses.
“Yes, some of the sarcophaguses are richly detailed, but more importantly, you can learn a lot from who is inside.”
But only for a limited time. Because of the fragile nature of the mummies in this exhibit, Martin says, the museum will only have them on display through April 22.
Misha Davenport is a local free-lance writer.