Mummy mysteries unraveled

NEW YORK -- Mummy No. 30007, currently residing at the American Museum of Natural History, is a showstopper.

She's known as the Gilded Lady, for good reason: Her coffin, intricately decorated with linen, a golden headdress and facial features, has an air of divinity. She's so well preserved that she looks exactly how the people of her time hoped she would appear for eternity. To contemporary scientists, however, it's what they don't see that is equally fascinating: Who was this ancient woman, and what did she look like when she was alive?

This is one of the many mysteries examined in "Mummies," which runs through Jan. 7. More than a dozen specimens are on display; some have not been on public view since the 1893 World's Columbian Exposition in Chicago. The show, which originated at the Field Museum in Chicago, explores how and why two civilizations separated by about 7,500 miles -- ancient Egypt and pre-Columbian Peru -- practiced mummification.

With its somber lighting and music, the exhibition almost commands reverence. But the show also includes virtual mummies that viewers can unwrap at interactive tables. The easy-to-navigate space reveals rare artifacts and three-dimensional imaging of what lies beneath the cloth. The hero of modern mummy investigations, the CT scanner, is prominently displayed at the start of the exhibition. It gives archaeologists an inside look at the millenniums-old specimens without damaging them. A century ago, scientists would unwrap their finds, often harming them in the process.

But way before visitors meet the Gilded Lady, they are taken to Peru, where about 7,000 years ago the Chinchorro people became the first known civilization to practice mummification, thousands of years before the Egyptians.

Dozens of other societies in the region of what is now Peru also mummified their dead. It was a way to preserve family members and establish a dynasty. They would pack them into bundles of cloth or wool, shaped like a sitting person. Sometimes ceramics or personal items would be put in the bundles. The Chancay culture in Peru placed the bundles upright in pits, and retrieved them during festivals, or when they wanted to show off their ancestors. Mummification was a way to keep family members close, unlike the ancient Egyptians, who sought to set up the dead for an afterlife with the gods. A full-size diorama shows what a pit looked like.

The Peru section also displays several skulls that were manipulated to have bumps or appear oblong. Archaeologists think some Peruvian cultures practiced cranial shaping on the developing skulls of newborns.

In the Egypt section are the more familiar types of mummies. Egyptians began mummifying their dead around 3,500 B.C., preparing them much more extravagantly than the Peruvians did and using an early form of embalming.

What the mummies from Peru and Egypt have in common is the care that went into their preparation, and their placement in cloth bundles or elaborate sarcophagi, to be put on display for life after death, whether that meant for family members or for the gods. In witnessing them now, viewers become part of that afterlife.

"Mummies," through Jan. 7, American Museum of Natural History, amnh.org.

Travel on 04/16/2017

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