11 Scenes from "Mummies of the World" in Portland

Image credit: 
Chris Higgins

A group of mummies is on display now at OMSI in Portland, Oregon. Mummies of the World bills itself as "the largest exhibition of mummies and related artifacts ever assembled," and it is suitably epic -- an exhibit hall with soothing music hosts this massive collection of mummies and relics spanning the globe. It's important to note that many of the mummies are not Egyptian -- indeed, many of the most spectacular mummies are from South America. They day before the exhibit opened, I got a preview of the exhibit, and have these photos to share.

1. Cats

Here are two cat mummies from Egypt. The cat on the left is labeled "Wooden Sarcophagus with Cat Mummy," and the exhibit notes that in rare cases, mummified cats were placed inside cat-shaped sarcophagi. This is one of those sarcophagi. On the right, the tag alongside "Mummy of a Cat" notes that this cat mummy was likely a kitten raised specifically to become a mummy. The face painting was added on top of the wrappings.

2. Nes-pa-qa-shuti

One of the most visually stunning parts of the exhibit is the sarcophagus of the Egyptian Nes-pa-qa-shuti. The sarcophagus is divided into three segments placed on separate layers, with the ornate top shell placed on top, the middle segment with the mummy himself in the middle, and the base at the bottom (not pictured). According to the accompanying display, Nes-pa-qa-shuti dates to about 650 B.C., and he was a singer at the Temple of Min (a fertility goddess).

3. Canopic Jar

Part of the exhibit explains the embalming process in ancient Egypt. After the corpse's organs were removed, they were placed into four canopic jars. This particular jar was the vessel for the stomach and upper intestine, guarded by "jackal-headed god Duamutef." (The display also notes that in later dynasties, the organs were removed, embalmed, and then placed back into the body.)

4. Necrotome

Another part of the embalmer's toolkit was the necrotome, a knife used to open the body. This knife "probably dates to the time of the New Kingdom, about 1540 to 1075 B.C." Although the scale isn't obvious from this photo, the necrotome is about the size of a dinner knife.

5. Myrrh

I've been hearing about myrrh for my entire life, but I've never seen it before. Here's a contemporary sample of myrrh, a tree resin used in coating some mummies' bodies.

6. Howler Monkey

This is one of the first things you see upon entering the exhibit, and it's a doozy. This monkey hails from Gran Chaco in Argentina. The monkey is dressed in an elaborate feather skirt (not pictured) and has separate feathers wrapped around its head and neck. The exhibit notes that this monkey was likely preserved naturally due to its warm, dry environment, rather than through an embalming process.

7. Head of an Ancient Egyptian Mummy

The exhibit includes various full-body mummies, but there are a few that are just heads. Notes explain that in the 18th and 19th centuries, "Egyptian mummies were frequently cut into pieces and sold to tourists." (!) This is the head of a man who lived through the Roman occupation of Egypt, circa 15 B.C. After mummification, it appears that bandages were removed to display the preservation of the skin.

8. Ushabtis

"Ushabti" means "answerer," and these tiny figurines (just inches high) were included in mummy tombs. These date from 1550 to 1070 B.C.

9. Children's Toy Horse

Several mummies of children were on display (not pictured here). Alongside them were various toys buried with those mummies. This one is a toy dating to A.D. 500-700.

10. The Tattooed Woman

This mummy of a tattooed woman is from Chile; she died sometime before 1400 A.D. She has three tattoos (ovals with dots), the significance of which are unknown. Her hair is shockingly well-preserved.

11. Page from the Book of the Dead

What we call the Book of the Dead was "known by the ancient Egyptians as 'Spells of Going Forth by Day,'" and, for those who could afford it, would be placed inside the coffin with a mummy. The book (a papyrus scroll) included "spells, hymns, and instructions to reach the afterlife." This is a fragment of a page -- an interactive display to its side allows you to scroll through a reconstruction of the book.

Where to See More

This post just scratches the surface of what you'll see at the Mummies of the World exhibit. There are mummies of people, animals, and plenty of explanatory material putting them in context. I should also note that the exhibit's curators put a lot of thought into presenting the mummies in a context that respected the fact that they are, let's face it, actual dead people. When I asked about this aspect of the exhibit, I was pointed to a thorough ethics report from the California Science Center, discussing the specifics of why this exhibit was deemed worthy by that body. I came away from that reading satisfied, though I will say that as a visitor, it can be challenging to come face-to-face with the unwrapped head of a mummy.

Mummies of the World will remain at OMSI through September 8. There will be one more stop on the tour after OMSI, but I couldn't get officials to comment on where that might be. So if you're into mummies, and you're anywhere near Portland, this may be your last chance to see the collection.

All photographs © 2013 Chris Higgins.

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June 26, 2013 - 10:00am
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