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Exhibition：Egyptian Mummies from the British Museum – Exploring ancient lives
Venue：Exhibition Area ll,1F.Library Building, National Palace Museum
This exhibition introduces six individuals who lived in ancient Egypt from about 900 BC to about AD 180. They have been carefully chosen to throw light on different aspects of life and death along the banks of the Nile. In addition, curators and scientists at the British Museum used the latest technologies, including Computerised Tomography scanning, to determine the age at death and sex of the mummified individuals, and to explore themes, such as diet, state of health, mummification process and religious practices in ancient Egypt.
Egyptian mummies: Exploring ancient lives
Ancient Egyptian monuments are a unique record of these early societies, which developed in the Nile valley. However, most of the art and architecture was designed according to strict guidelines and dominated by formal imagery, so it offers limited insights into the daily lives of Egypt’s past inhabitants. Methods developed in anthropology and archaeology allow us not only to determine the age at death or biological sex of an individual; they also inform us about important aspects of human biology, genetics, diet, the prevalence of diseases, burial practices and the process of mummification.
Over the past decades, the British Museum used the latest scientific methods available to study the Egyptian mummies in its collection. These non-invasive techniques provide insights into life in an ancient land defined by the river Nile. This exhibition presents six people who lived from about 900 BC to AD 180. Without the need to unwrap their mummified remains, new findings have enabled us to create a personal profile of each individual, painting a picture of who they were – their age, their beliefs and the diseases they suffered from.
The mummy of the temple singer begin CT scanned at the Royal Brompton Hospital in London
Nestawedjat, a married woman from Thebes
We know very little about Nestawedjat and her three coffins before they arrived at the British Museum in 1880. The name Nestawedjat, inscribed in hieroglyphs on each coffin, has a meaning: ‘The one who belongs to the wedjat eye’. Also known as the Eye of Horus, the wedjat was a symbol of protection and healing.
Her title, ‘Lady of the House’, indicates that Nestawedjat was a married woman. The style and the quality of her coffins suggest that she came from Thebes (modern Luxor), a major religious centre in ancient Egypt. She belonged to a wealthy family. The body of Nestawedjat has been carefully preserved and provides an excellent example of artificial mummification.
Mummification in ancient Egypt
Embalmers removed the most perishable internal organs soon after death to stop decomposition. Her brain, removed through the nose, was discarded but her heart, regarded as the centre of intellect and memory, has been left in place. The body was then dried in natron, a natural salt, for around 35 days. Empty spaces were then filled with a variety of materials to strengthen her body and prevent decay. The liver, lungs, stomach and intestines were regarded as embodiments of the entire person and were preserved separately. Embalmers sometimes wrapped these organs like miniature mummies and placed them in vessels called canopic jars. Alternatively the packages were placed back inside or on top of the body, as in Nestawedjat’s case.
Tamut, a Chantress of Amun
Inscriptions on her case identify Tamut as the daughter of Khonsumose, a priest of the god Amun, king of the gods. As members of a high-status family, Tamut and her father would have taken part in rituals in the temple of Karnak, the most important religious complex at Thebes (modern Luxor).
The CT scans show that many amulets and other ritual trappings were placed on her body under the wrappings. They were believed to have magical powers that would protect the deceased and help her to gain immortality. The clarity of the scans allows us to identify most of the amulets by their shapes. CT data also tells us which materials they were made from.
Four wedjat eye amulets
The wedjat, or Eye of Horus, was one of the most popular ancient Egyptian amulets. According to an important myth, the god Horus’s right eye was injured in battle, but was later magically restored. The wedjat eye became a symbol for integrity, the state of being whole, and was believed to protect the wearer from injury or harm. The lines beneath the eye represent the markings around the eye of a falcon, the bird used to represent Horus.
Irthorru, a priest from Akhmim
Irthorru lived in the town of Akhmim, situated about 200 km north of Thebes (modern Luxor). The inscriptions on his finely decorated coffin tell us his name and role – like many of his relatives, Irthorru was a priest. Serving several gods, he probably divided his time between different temples. Irthorru’s body has been carefully mummified and several amulets, such as a wedjat eye on the back of his hand, were placed on his body to protect him and ensure rebirth in the afterlife. The gilded mask gave him a perfect face for eternity – gold was thought to symbolise the skin of the gods. Typically masks covered the whole head but recent CT scans reveal that Irthorru’s mask only covers his face. A linen shroud cleverly hides the rest of his head.
Priesthood in ancient Egypt
Most priests worked in rotation, known as a phylai, usually serving one month out of four. The rest of the time they attended to duties outside the temple or in another sanctuary, as individuals could hold several priesthoods simultaneously. By the time Irthorru lived, most positions were hereditary and many members of his family served in the priesthood of Min.
Priests are usually portrayed holding an incense burner, an essential tool in funerary and temple rituals. Incense consisted of anything that would provide a nice smell when burnt, such as resin, flowers, leaves and roots. Known as senetjer (‘to make divine’), incense purified the air and ensured that the gods would always be surrounded by pleasant aromas.
A temple singer from Thebes
Although we do not know her name, the inscription on this woman’s cartonnage case tells us that she was a priestess – a Singer of the Interior of Amun. She lived in Thebes around 800 BC and probably worked at the temple of Karnak. We have no record of her personal life. CT scans show that she was probably between 35 and 49 years old when she died and suffered from various dental problems.
Priestesses and temple singers are usually portrayed on their funerary equipment as young and wearing delicate jewellery. A few amulets were found inside this woman’s abdomen and numerous small metal – probably gold – pellets were scattered on top of her body. Her short hair suggests that she might have worn a wig for special occasions, possibly complemented with lavish jewellery.
Music was an important part of ancient Egyptian life. Many antique musical instruments have survived, including a range of percussion, wind and string instruments. Musical instruments were regularly played in Egyptian temples. The rituals performed by priests were also accompanied by singers chanting hymns. Usually from high-status families, ‘Singers of the Interior’ would have been part of the chief priestess of Amun’s entourage and would have had access to the most sacred areas of the temple. This priestess may have played the harp or the lute as she sang.
A young child from Hawara
In ancient Egypt few children appear to have been mummified. However, during the Roman period the practice seems to have increased and many examples have been uncovered at the cemetery at Hawara. CT scans confirm that the boy was around two years old when he died. First considered to be the mummy of a girl, recent CT scans confirm that these are the remains of a young boy. His gilded and finely decorated cartonnage mask suggests that he came from an elite family. This mummy of a child is covered with several different pieces of cartonnage. A finely gilded mask has been placed over his head, associating him with the gods. He holds a delicate bouquet of rose and myrtle.
Family life in ancient Egypt
The family unit was central to ancient Egyptian life and is often depicted in art. The deceased is usually shown surrounded by members of his or her family. The ideal nuclear family – comprising a father, a mother and a child – was mirrored in the divine world. Gods were often portrayed in triads, such as Osiris, Isis and their child Horus.
A young man from Roman Egypt
Mummification continued to be practised when Roman rulers took over Egypt in 30 BC. However, the techniques and styles used in mummification evolved during this period. One major innovation was the use of wooden panels depicting the deceased, known as ‘mummy portraits’. This mummy of a man is among the first mummies with such an image to reach Europe. The picture shows a young man with dark curly hair, thick eyebrows and wide eyes. He is beardless, indicating youth, and CT scans have confirmed that he was between 17 and 20 years old when he died. They also revealed that he was overweight, in contrast to the slim face shown in the portrait.
Funerary traditions in Roman Egypt
Although mummification survived, many of the practices surrounding it changed greatly. The result was a fusion of Egyptian, Greek and Roman funerary customs. During the Roman period, wooden boards were sometimes placed inside a mummy’s wrappings under the embalmed body. While helping to keep the body together, the board was also an ideal canvas for funerary texts and images. By the Roman period great emphasis was placed on the mummy’s outer appearance. Everyday objects, such as jewellery and glass vessels, were placed in graves instead of amulets and new funerary items were introduced, such as mummy portraits.
Notices & Information
To ensure the safety of the objects and to enhance your viewing pleasure:
● Please refrain from speaking in a loud voice, having children running around, eating and drinking, smoking, or improperly disposing of wastepaper or other articles.
● All forms of photography and filming in the exhibition areas are prohibited.
● Do not take any dangerous items into the exhibition areas. (including：long-handle umbrella、tripod、scissors、knife)
● Please do not bring the pets into the exhibition areas. (excluding guide dog).
● Camera and video equipment must be placed within your carry-in bag or deposited in a locker before entering the exhibition areas.
● Backpacks, travel bags or luggage should be deposited in a locker before entering the exhibition areas.
● If there are too much visitors, please follow the instruction staff to line up
● Do not to buy extra ticket for souvenir area. please directly from the exit to souvenir area.
● For any ticket-related question, please inquire staff in box office or contact 02-66169938 (Mon-Fri 11:00-17:30) for more information.
1. Take the MRT Tamsui-Xinyi Line to the Shilin Station and take bus R30 (Red 30 - Low-floor bus) to the National Palace Museum. Other routes that will take you to and near the Museum plaza are buses 255, 304, 815 (Sanchung – NPM Line), M1, Minibus 18 and Minibus 19.
2. Take the MRT Wenhu Line to the Dazhi Station and take bus B13 (Brown 13) to the National Palace Museum, alighting before the Front Facade Plaza of the Museum.
3. Alternatively, visitors may choose to take the Wenhu Line and get off at Jiannan Rd. Station, then take bus B20 (Brown 20) to NPM's front entrance (Main Building).
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