High-tech identifies museum mummy
ALBANY The mummy Ankhefenmut lives again.
“There’s an ancient Egyptian saying — ‘To say the name of the dead is to make him live again.’ That’s kind of what we’re doing here,” said Bob Brier, an Egyptologist who teaches seminars on mummies and a course in Egyptian history at Long Island University Post.
On Thursday, Brier and officials at the Albany Institute of History & Art announced that one of the museum’s oldest residents has been cursed by mistaken identity for the past 104 years. A mummy previously believed female has been positively identified as the male priest and sculptor Ankhefenmut, who lived nearly 3,000 years ago.
The determination was made after both mummies in the Institute’s collection underwent advanced technology scans and X-rays at Albany Medical Center in March 2012. Brier and fellow
Egyptologist Peter Lacovara examined the mummies along with two radiologists.
“We really didn’t know,” said Tammis K. Groft, interim museum director and chief curator. “I’ll never forget being in the room at Albany Medical Center where they were examining all the scans and Peter turns around and says, ‘Well, it’s a boy.’ Then we knew. And if it’s a man, could it be Ankhefenmut? That’s pretty extraordinary — for all these years, we did not think we had the mummy of Ankhefenmut.”
The announcement serves as a preview for the museum’s upcoming “Mystery of the Albany Mummies” exhibit, which opens Sept. 21 and runs into June 2014. Two hundred objects, including loans from museums all over the world, will be on display. A book and a 28-minute documentary, “The Albany Mummies: Unraveling an Ancient Mystery,” also will be part of the event.
The scans provided detailed pictures of the “woman” mummy’s skeletal structure. The thicker, more robust and angular bones —which indicate more muscle tissue — was one clue the remains were not female. The scans also showed male pelvic bones. The shape of the jaw and orbital bones also were more appropriate for a male.
There were also clues that pointed to the identity. Hieroglyphs — characters used to symbolize words — located on the lower part of the mummy’s coffin indicated it belonged to Ankhefenmut. And because the mummy’s upper right side was decidedly more muscular than the left side — scholars say most ancient Egyptians were right-handed — it indicated the man had spent much of his time carving statues of the gods. That’s something a priest of the temple of Mut would have done.
“I was surprised that we could get evidence that he was a sculptor,” Brier said. “For the sex, when they said it was a female, how did they know that when they sold it in 1909?”
There’s a story there, too. The name on the side of the coffin was not considered great insight in 1909, when museum trustee Samuel Brown traveled to Cairo, Egypt, to purchase mummies for his home museum. Brown insisted one of the two mummies he was considering — for a purchase price of $100 — be unwrapped. “He did not want, and I quote, a ‘mushy one,’ ” Groft said.
The unwrapped mummy was male. Cairo officials told Brown the mummy that remained wrapped was a female. That’s what Institute officials were told — and what generations of museum visitors believed — for more than 100 years.
The mummies had been scanned before, in 1988, but Groft said researchers were then looking for amulets or other possessions the mummies might have been buried with. They were not focusing on differences between men and women.
Groft added the museum has solved a mummy mystery before. During the 1950s, she said, the mummy of an Egyptian cat became part of the collection. A scan in 2001 determined the mummified remains were not feline, but canine — a mummy dog was in the museum.
Brier said the mummies probably were removed from their tombs during the 1880s, boom times in Egypt for excavations and finding ancient dead. Ankhefenmut stood about 5-feet-2 and was about 50 years old when he died. Brier said bones can’t pinpoint the cause of death, but removing the wrappings could reveal a little more about the priest.
“We could take blood samples, you could do his blood type, we could probably learn more,” Brier said. “We won’t, of course. In the old days, we used to do unwrappings before we had CAT scans.”
Groft said the mummies remain the most popular attraction at the museum.
“They’ve been on continuous view for over 100 years,” she said. “We can’t say that about anything else in our collection.”
Brier said interest in mummies is really interest in death.
“I think kids are interested in them because it’s the only time they get to look at a dead person,” he said.
For adults, immortality is a factor.
“He’s 3,000 years old, and here he is,” Brier said.
As part of the upcoming exhibit, Ankhefenmut’s wooden lid — which was placed over his body — and the wooden cover that closed the coffin will be reunited. The lid is currently in the Kunsthistoriches Museum in Vienna; the cover is in the British Museum in London.
“I think this mummy belongs in this case,” Brier said. “It’s even the right size for this case, it’s the right period. It says ‘sculptor,’ he’s asymmetrical, I think it all goes together pretty well. It sounds right. … I think he’ll be very happy.”