Willard Libby, Alfred Nobel, and Ahanakht

October 23, 2012

One of the boards from the inner coffin of Ahanakht, with a piece of modern wood replacing the sample taken for a pioneering C14 studyHow cool is this?  While working on a post for our Artifact Lab blog, I Googled Ahanakht, the ancient Egyptian buried in an elaborately inscribed wooden coffin in our collection.  Besides learning that Ahanakht I was the first Middle Kingdom governor of the Hare nome (province) in around 2000 BCE, I got a result citing “Willard F. Libby – Nobel Lecture – Nobelprize.org”.  Intrigued, I followed the link and discovered that this artifact in our collection had played a crucial role in the development of C14 as a dating technique, for which Dr. Libby received the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 1960.  Libby used the cedar wood from Ahahakht’s coffin as one of the points in his ‘curve of knowns’ and specifically mentioned Ahanakht in his Nobel Laureate address on December 12, 1960.

Graph taken from publication of Libby’s Nobel Laureate address, showing Penn Museum’s own Aha-Nakht[sic] as one of the baseline known dates.
As Egyptologist Salima Ikram (author of The Mummy in Ancient Egypt: Equipping the Dead for Eternity) says “if you put [mummies] in museums, take care of them, and remember to recite the name of the deceased, then they are, in fact, having the kind of afterlife they wanted, because the whole point of an afterlife is to be remembered”.   Ahanakht can be considered to be having a very successful afterlife.