Ancient lives, new discoveries: eight mummies, eight lives, eight stories – British Museum

The Ancient lives, new discoveries exhibition at the British Museum is a brilliant exploration of eight different mummies, each with their own story. It uses the latest technology to show how we can learn from these individuals and find out more about their lives.

These people were found in ancient Egypt and Sudan, and between them they span 4,000 years of history. Some were embalmed deliberately, others were preserved naturally.

A young man preserved in the sand (Gebelein Man B)

This mummy dates from about 3500 BC and was discovered in Gebelein, Egypt, along with several other individuals. He died as a relatively young man (20-35) and was preserved naturally in the sand. What I found amazing about this individual was that the contents of his stomach were preserved too!

A man embalmed for the afterlife (Linen man)

This older man was discovered in Thebes and dates from around 600 BC. He was bound in linen and had suffered dental abscesses, tooth loss and tooth decay, which would have caused him a great deal of pain. Intriguingly, he was found in a woman’s coffin, though whether this happened at the time of his death or at the time of his discovery in the 19th century is unclear. My personal, rather outlandish theory is that he was put in the wrong coffin on purpose, perhaps to cover up his death – this is probably ridiculous but I think it sounds rather exciting!

Tamut: a high-ranking priest’s daughter

Tayesmutengebtiu, or Tamut, was the daughter of a priest, known as Lady of the House or the Chantress of Amun. Found in Thebes, she was aged at least thirty-five when she died, and as well as dental abscesses (common among the ancient Egyptians because of their consumption of sugar) she suffered from atheroscleriosis (plaque in the arteries). Dating from around 900 BC, the hieroglyphic inscriptions on her mummy case show that she was married when she died, and as a lady of high status she was mummified very carefully. CT scans have identified many amulets on her body beneath the bandages. Incredibly, 3D printing has been used to turn the CT scans into three-dimensional models, meaning that we can see the amulets without unwrapping the bandages.

Padiamenet: a Temple Doorkeeper

Padiamenet was discovered in Thebes and his mummy dates from around 700 BC. He was middle-aged when he died, and also suffered from dental abscesses and atherosclerosis during his life. Padiamenet was a temple doorkeeper, responsible for deciding who was able to enter the most sacred parts of the temple. He also worked as a barber, as all the priests had to have all their body hair removed before going into the temple. There were mistakes made during his mummification: his head came off and had to be fixed back on, and when his mummified body was laid in his case it was found to be too short so the embalmers had to improvise an extension! Padiamenet was buried with his family, and his wife and son were found with him; after his death, his post had passed to his son.

Tjayasetimu: a young temple singer

I found Tjayasetimu one of the most poignant mummies in the exhibition simply because she was only around seven when she died. Again, she was discovered in Thebes, and lived around 800 BC. Her case is small, but scans have shown that her body inside was even smaller. The case shows her as a grown woman, perhaps suggesting her anticipated status in the next life.

In general, few child mummies have been discovered: death in childhood was very common, and it was probably too expensive to have all your children mummified. Tjayasetimu probably had the honour because of her status as a temple singer.

An unusual mummy from the Roman period

This mummy, dating from after 30 BC (though also from Thebes), was one I found a bit spooky. He is wrapped up so that all his limbs are wrapped separately, and his painted face makes him look quite lifelike. Experts aren’t sure why this is – he even has a beard painted, but he also has breasts painted on.

During the early Roman period, Egyptian customs were still common, and the practice of embalming was used by Romans as well as Egyptians.

A young child from the Roman period

This young male child, approximately 2 years old, dates from AD 40-60 and was found in Hawara, Egypt. His tiny body is contained in an elaborate case. He has been treated like an adult mummy in many respects, so perhaps there was more of a focus on treating children like adults in terms of mummification during this later period. I found this really sad – the whole exhibition was brilliant in terms of getting me to see the mummies as real people who actually lived, but this makes the deaths of the young children in particular seem so much more tragic.

A Christian woman from Sudan

The final mummy was a Christian woman found in Sudan, dating from around 700 AD – she is the youngest mummy in the exhibition. She was found when the Sudanese government decided to build a dam near the Fourth Cataract: a number of museums including the British Museum were invited to carry out archaeological work, and this body was found naturally preserved in a small cemetery. Amazingly, the body has a tattoo which is still visible – it is a tattoo signifying the Archangel Michael, the patron saint of her area.

This exhibition has just been extended until the 19th of April 2015 and I’m not surprised. It really is wonderful and allows you to learn so much about these individuals and the times in which they lived. I highly recommend visiting.

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