In fact, these people, on display in “Mummies of the World: The Exhibition,” might be shocked by our interest.
The ones who lived in cultures that practiced mummification of the dead — and not just ancient Egypt; that’s is one of the first myths busted in this exhibit at the Oregon Museum of Science and Industry — believed ritualized drying of the body was a critical step in their progress to the sweet afterlife. Those who became mummies by chance, because of the climate and conditions under which they died, might not have thought about it at all.
Because their bodies were preserved, intentionally or otherwise, 21st century scientists have a chance to learn about life and death hundreds and thousands of years ago. And it turns out mummies have a lot in common with us, from TB to arthritis and heart disease.
Mummies of the World “dispels all the myths,” said Mark Corwin, president of American Exhibitions, producer of the exhibit.
“Mummies aren’t scary,” he said. “They won’t get you.
“They aren’t all from Egypt. They were preserved in a variety of ways. And they date from various time periods, some not that long ago.”
Corwin said the traveling exhibit brings together some of the best-preserved and most-studied mummies from 21 European museums.
OMSI is the exhibit’s ninth stop on its 10-city tour. After the tour finishes up in 2014, the mummies and other artifacts will be returned to the museums from which they were borrowed.
Some of the mummies are partially or entirely unwrapped. Others, such as the bodies preserved in cold, dry, high-altitude Peru, weren’t wrapped to begin with.
Some are in pieces, but some are astonishingly compete, with luxurious hair or remnants of centuries-old garments intact. One Egyptian man is displayed alongside his sarcophagus, so you can see both how his body was prepared and how it was laid to rest.
Most fascinating are a few that seem especially closely related to us.
Mummified by the dry air in their tombs, a 17th century Germany baron still wears his fancy leather boots. And a mother, father and baby from 18th Century Hungary are dressed in reproductions of garments they were wearing when discovered.
In addition to the human mummies, there are many animals, most of them accidentally preserved.
A dog, mummified 500 years ago in a European bog, retains almost all its thick fur. Cats and rodents that became mummies after getting trapped in house walls resemble leather.
But some of the animals were intentionally mummified.
A kitten, probably raised for the purpose of sacrifice, was mummified in an ancient Egyptian religious rite. A baby alligator, which may have died naturally, also mummified in the name of religion. And a mummified falcon was sacrificed in honor of Horus, the Egyptian god of the sky.
Scattered among the exhibits are various displays, some of which show mummification materials and tools and others which allow visitors to experience research techniques.
The most striking is an interactive display with six stations, each holding a sample of material for visitors to touch: mummified fur; linen wrappings; embalmed skin; skin from a man mummified in a bog; bones from a bog mummy; and air-dried flesh. Visitors will marvel at them, especially, the softness of the bog mummy skin, which feels like the finest calfskin.
“Who were they? How did they live? What can they teach us?” asks the multimedia presentation that greets those entering Mummies of the World.
The first mummy visitors encounter is an Egyptian child dating from about 6,400 years ago. At first glance, the tightly wrapped mummy appears to hold an infant; but X-rays and other investigative techniques have shown that it’s actually a 3- or 4-year-old whose disarticulated bones were arranged in a compact bundle.
Not far from the child is a mummified howler monkey found in Argentina. The animal probably died and became mummified due to natural causes. But it was some ancient tribe that found it and turned it into a totem, adding a feathered skirt and a stick so it could be held up by a dancer.
A trio of Egyptian skulls is next. One is half covered by wrappings; another is fully unwrapped. The skin is leathery, but the facial features are distinct. X-rays and other techniques have revealed that the skulls are empty of everything but remnants of brain matter and that one has a twisted neck vertebrae, possibly the cause of death.
Visitors can compare and contrast an array of complete mummies from different cultures:
- An Egyptian man from about 408 B.C. whose musculature, ribs and hair texture are easy to see.
- A well-preserved, 2,350 year old mummy of a man who suffered from arthritis, researchers have discovered.
- A Chilean woman found on the desert holding two mummified children, one of whom died 200 years after the first — a puzzle scientists have yet to solve.
- An 8- to 10-month old child who died 6,500 years ago from a heart defect.
- A Peruvian woman whose body was mummified in a sitting position — typical of that culture, but producing an eerily modern aura. Her tattoos are visible, and her long hair is intact.
IF YOU GO
- What: Mummies of the World, a two-level exhibit that includes dozens of human and animal mummies and related artifacts from Egypt, South America, Europe, Asia and Oceania
- Where: Oregon Museum of Science and Industry in Portland
- When: 9:30 a.m. to 7 p.m. weekdays and 9:30 a.m. to 9 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays through Sept. 8
- How: Regular admission, $9.50 for children and seniors, $13 for others; admission with special exhibit, $19 for children and seniors, $21 for others; more information, www.omsi.edu
- Also: Exhibit, which takes 90 to 120 minutes to cover adequately, is being billed as family-friendly; however, children should be accompanied by parents prepared to explain and discuss what they are seeing