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Mummy's the word

Manitoba Museum exhibition explores our fascination with ancient body preservation

Posted: 10/26/2013 1:00 AM | Comments: 0

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The hieroglyphics that appear along the sides of the 2,300-year-old coffin identify the person in it as Pesed and includes a grocery list of the foods and beer she will need to get her through the afterlife.

Lady Pesed Ma Rheres, single daughter of Heshor, a high-ranking priest of Khem and his wife Lady Urt, was a VIP when she lived and even in death is still a celebrity in the touring exhibition called Wrapped: The Mummy of Pesed, which opened Friday at the Manitoba Museum.

The display case that contains the linen-wrapped body of Pesed, who lived during the time of Alexander the Great, is the focus of the show that attempts to explore our enduring fascination with mummies since they were first unearthed in Egypt in the 19th century.

Wrapped's American curator, Johnathan Elias, has been one of those life-long devotees, hooked since he was a grade-schooler and noticed he resembled the mask of the boy king Tutankhamun. He became a prominent and enthusiastic Egyptologist and director of the Akhmim Mummy Consortium in Carlyle, Pa. His group CT scans mummies from Akhmim -- a large city in southern Egypt -- where Pesed lived from about 340-275 BC. Since he first subjected her to computed tomography scanning a dozen years ago, the 55-year-old Elias feels like he almost knows her.

"Pesed is a wonderful person," says Elias, looking down on the mummy during an interview at the museum this week. "By the CT data we know that she reached an advanced age for her society of about 70. She was a survivor. From her musculature we can tell her legs were strong. She must have been a walker, perhaps an athletic person or a dancer like her mother in the temple."

His CT scans tell a story about these high-station people. In ancient Egypt the poor were buried in the sand and their bodies totally decomposed within two years while the rich were preserved, supposedly forever, in a tomb.

They were the subject of the expensive process of preserving their bodies -- the soft tissue is now more like beef jerky in texture, says Elias -- for the afterlife. Amulets or magical tokens were wrapped with the bodies to protect or offer beneficial effect. Based on the amulets placed with Pesed, her death was caused by something to do with her left side.

The idea behind mummification was to preserve the body by removing all moisture until the soul, separated at death, returned to complete resurrection. In order to attract the soul to return, the body needed funereal offerings by the living.

"Sometimes those lists were long with a hundred items on them, specifying six types of beer," says Elias, who can read hieroglyphs. "Beer always came second on the list after bread. Egyptians saw beer as holy."

Even today, Elias says Winnipeggers don't need to literally bring Pesed a six-pack of Lucky for her to enjoy a leisurely quaff.

"In the Egyptian magic sense all anyone has to do is say beer and it will be given to her," he says.

Wrapped also features the mummies of a kitten, two hawks and a baby crocodile. It is notable for the largest collection of forensic sculptures of ancient Egyptians amassed in one place. There are more than a dozen forensic portraits, including one of Pesed, as well as the largest assemblage of modern computer-generated 3D prints. Elias worked with University of Manitoba professor Robert Hoppa on the digital imaging.

"Nothing rivals scanning a mummy," says Elias, who earned his doctorate at the University of Chicago. "You think going to Egypt to excavate that you will find a treasure in 10 minutes. It is hard, back-breaking work and even if you can avoid the sun or the flies, dysentery will get you -- there is no escape. With CT-scanning you avoid all that but get all the Egyptology you want."

The sculpture of what Pesed might have looked like was created by American forensic artist Frank Bender, famous for his facial reconstructions of the dead that helped police to solve some of the most baffling homicides south of the border.

Westminster College has been Pesed's home since 1885 when graduate Rev. John Giffen, a missionary, donated the mummy he had bought for $5. Those were the days when Egypt was cash-strapped and mummies could be bought from street vendors.

Wealthy travellers took them home as souvenirs and in upper-crust Victorian England it became a fad to host unrolling parties that were part lurid spectacle, part scientific investigation. Invitations were sent to inventors, physicians and visionaries calling on them to convene at half-past two to witness the unwrapping of a mummy, perhaps purchased at an antiquities auction.

"They'd gather like at Downton Abbey," says Elias comparing it to the high-class setting of the PBS series. "If Lord Granthan had any science interest, he'd be hosting one of those parties."

Mummies have lived in literature from the time, including Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's 1892 short story Lot No. 249, in which a student re-animates a mummy to attack his enemies. A copy is part of the exhibition.

Pesed's time at an institution of higher education was not as peaceful as her first couple of thousand years in the afterlife. Her head was unwrapped sometime in the late 1800s or early 20th century by unknown people and the graffiti found on the inside of the coffin cover suggests she was not always at rest.

"Pesed was the object of college hijinks." Elias says. "We know that her body was taken out of the coffin and used as a dancing partner. Her ankles are broken from that treatment, abuse really."

She suffered other indignities by local frat pranksters who would surprise co-eds by slipping her into their beds to await the screams of horror.

Whatever swearing that might have spewed from her victims still could not be associated to the curse of the mummy.

"You hear a lot about that, but there is no curse that I am aware of," Elias says. "There are inscriptions that say, 'do not forget my name or else,' but none that say, 'he who owns this tomb will be destroyed.' It may have occurred but it is rare."

kevin.prokosh@freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition October 26, 2013 G1

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