Highlights from the Collection: Mummies

Reconstructed Predynastic Burial

This body, in a curled position and wrapped in reeds, was buried in a pit in the Egyptian desert more than 5000 years ago. After interment the tomb was heaped high with sand, which was kept in place by piling stones around it. The hot, dry sand, which completely enveloped the body, dehydrated and preserved it.

Around the body were grouped clay jars containing food and drink and a slate palette with grinding stone, used to pulverize mineral pigments for cosmetics. All were intended for use in the next life.

This "mummy," created by naturally occurring environmental conditions, predates Egyptian embalming practices of the pharaonic period by hundreds of years.

Mummy Mask

Mummy masks were a traditional part of the funerary equipment with which ancient Egyptians supplied their burials for the life they believed would continue after death. This example is a stylized portrait of the deceased, evidently a woman. It originally covered the head and shoulders of her mummified body.

The medium is cartonnage, a kind of ancient Egyptian papier- mache made from used linen and papyrus. The cartonnage was coated with gesso before the paint and gilding were applied.

The deceased is shown wearing a necklace at the throat with a heart amulet as a pendant. Below is a broad collar necklace fringed with drop pendants.

A representation of funerary shrines with double doors appears on each shoulder. The god Osiris sits on top of each shrine. These divine figures were intended to represent the deceased after death, for it was believed that all were reborn as Osiris. The feather which the god holds is an allusion to the deceased successfully being reborn after passing a judgement before the tribunal of the gods.

The Mummy and Coffin of Meresamun

The mummy and coffin of Meresamun are excellent examples of the skill of the ancient embalmer and coffin maker of Dynasty 22, about the year 950 B.C. The mummy and coffin were purchased in Egypt by James Henry Breasted, the founder of the Oriental Institute, in 1920. Where Meresamun lived and died is unknown, although the style of the coffin suggests that she was originally from the Theban (modern Luxor) area.

Meresamun's form-fitting sheath-like coffin is made of cartonnage, a type of papiér-mâché, composed of layers of fabric, glue and plaster. It is 63 inches (1.6m) long. Cartonnage coffins were formed over a temporary inner core made of mud and straw. After the coffin shell was completed, the wrapped mummy was inserted into the case through the back, and the back seam was then laced up. The separate footboard was laced on, the entire case covered with another layer of thin white plaster and then painted. The colored areas of the coffin were painted with a final layer of protective varnish which has turned slightly yellow with age.

This type of mummy case was normally part of a more complex set of coffins. It would probably have been placed within a wooden anthropoid (human-shaped) coffin, or even in a series of two or three nested coffins, all of which would have been painted with religious scenes.

The Decoration of the Coffin

The coffin is painted with scenes which allude to life after death. They were intended to ensure Meresamun's successful rebirth. The head of the coffin is decorated with a headband of flower petals with wings of a protective vulture by each cheek, and a small vulture head on the forehead. This type of headgear is worn by queens, priestesses and goddesses. Over the chest are layers of wide floral necklaces. Not only were flowers beautiful and sweet smelling, but they were considered to symbolize regeneration.

Below the floral collars, right and left, are two pairs of gods who were entrusted with the protection of the internal organs that were removed during the mummification process. These gods also appear on the lids of canopic jars, the containers in which the embalmed viscera were stored. Here the gods appear as wrapped mummies. To the right are the hawk-headed god, Quebehsenuef, who guarded the intestines, and the jackal-headed Duamutef, who guarded the stomach. To the left is the human-form Imseti, who guarded the liver, and the ape-headed Hapy, who guarded the lungs.

Between and slightly below these gods is a large representation of the falcon god Horus (or, perhaps, Re), with the sun's disk on his head, clasping a round shen ("eternity") sign in each talon. A feather fan, a symbol of divinity emerges from each shen sign. The solar Horus, as a symbol of the eternally reborn sun, signified rebirth.

On either side of the central band on the leg area of the coffin are wedjat eyes, also called the "Eye of Horus," which symbolized health and regeneration. Behind the eyes are winged serpents with sun disks on their heads. They symbolized protection. The serpent to the right hovers above the hieroglyphs for eternity, life and dominion. Below the serpents are rams which functioned on several different levels. They may be a pun for the word "soul" (both the word "soul" and "ram" sounded the same in the ancient Egyptian language). The ram may also be the god Khnum, one of the primary creator gods, or Banebdjed, who was associated with the soul of Osiris, one of the deities of the Afterlife.

Larger scale hieroglyphs cover the lower leg area. To the far right is the symbol for the west, the area of the setting-or dying-sun, which was associated with the land of the deceased. Between that sign and the central band of hieroglyphs is the djed pillar, which symbolized the backbone of the god Osiris, the main deity of the Afterlife. The djed indicates the deceased's association with Osiris in the Afterlife.

On the opposite side of the central band of hieroglyphs is the tiet (so-called "Isis knot"), a symbol with broad meaning, generally associated with health and well-being. To the left of the tiet is the symbol for the east, the realm of the reborn sun, hence the land of the living. It is paired with the djed, the symbol of the god Osiris, the husband/brother of Isis, to create a balanced composition.

Two images of the jackal god Wepwawet, protector of the necropolis, decorate the upper surface of the feet. The footboard of the coffin is decorated with a leaping bull, a symbol of fertility.

The inscription down the front of the coffin is a prayer which calls upon gods to give Meresamun offerings in the Afterlife: "A gift which the king gives to Re-Horakhty-Atum, Lord of the Two Lands and Heliopolis [and to] Ptah-Sokar-Osiris, Lord of Shechet, and Wennefer (a form of Osiris), Lord of the Sacred Land (ie: the Necropolis), the Great God, Lord of Heaven that he [the king] may give funerary offerings to the Osiris, the Singer in the Interior of the Temple of Amun, Meresamun, the One Beneficial to Amun, justified."

Who was Meresamun?

Both the inscription and the style of coffin indicate that it was made for a woman named Meresamun ("She Lives for Amun"). According to the inscription, she held the title "Singer in the Interior of the Temple of Amun." Women who held this title were the elite in a complex bureaucracy of many other women who held the title "Singer in the Temple of Amun." We assume that these other women performed music during certain temple rituals on a part-time basis. In contrast, many of the women like Meresamun, who held the more exalted title "Singer in the Interior of the Temple," were known to come from the finest families of Thebes. Some of them served as valets or stewards to members of the ruling family. It is not known exactly when Meresamun lived, and so we do not know which royal administration she may have served.

The coffin has never been opened and the mummy has never been unwrapped. In 1989, a preliminary study of the mummy within the coffin was done with x-rays. Three years later, the mummy of Meresamun was examined at the University of Chicago hospitals by CT scans (computed tomography or "CAT").