Mystery solved!

Hello again. Melissa the intern here! One of the things I love about working in the Artifact Lab is that every day is like a new Sherlock Holmes novel! For my latest project I have been investigating and treating a 4 x 4 ½ inch piece of paper associated with PUM I’s remains. This paper was believed to be a train ticket – according to museum documents the research group who autopsied PUM I in 1972 found “a 100 year old railway ticket stuffed into a hole in the chest (someone must have felt that the mummy needed a ticket for its trip to the United States in the 19th century).”

When we brought PUM I and his remains up to the Artifact Lab for conservation treatment, this piece of paper was found in a plastic bag along with some of his ribs.

The “train ticket” in a bag with PUM I’s ribs

By the time I got to examine the paper, it was extremely folded and bent, which made reading the text very difficult.

The piece of paper after removing it from the plastic bag

It was clear, however, that half the text was written in French and the other half was written in Arabic. In order to make the smaller print more legible, I relaxed and reduced the creases in the paper by humidifying it, using Mylar polyester film, damp blotter paper, and Gortex, a material made of expanded polytetrafluoroethylene (PTFE) that allows water to pass through as a vapor. By humidifying the paper, the creases and folds began to relax, and with the help of gravity and some weights I was able to flatten the paper into its original shape.

Paper after humidifying and relaxing

After completing the humidification treatment, it became much easier to read the smaller print. Unfortunately I have very limited experience with reading French and even less with Arabic. But thanks to Google translate I was able to not only translate the text, but determine that both the French and Arabic portions of the paper say the same thing. The text reads something like this:

April 15 Wednesday

Sunrise       in           5 h. 29 m.     Time

Sunset     Cairo       6 h. 21 m.      Average

Add 5 h. 39 m. hours the average time for the Arab hours

17 Moharrem 1321          7 Barmouda 1619

Everything seemed to make sense, but the words Moharrem and Barmouda did not have English translations. Since these proper nouns were associated with numbers, such as 1321 and 1619, I assumed they had something to do with dates. As it turns out Moharrem refers to the first month of the Muslim calendar and Barmouda, otherwise known as Parmouti, refers to the 8th month of the Coptic calendar, which lies between April 9th and May 8th. The first question that popped into my head was “why would both these dates be on the same paper?” Upon converting the Muslim date into a Coptic date, I realized that they were actually the same day! Knowing this, it seemed reasonable to assume that 17 Moharrem and 7 Barmouda is also the same as April 15th in the Gregorian calendar. The question now was what year these dates converted to in the Gregorian calendar, since this isn’t written on the paper. According to, a calendar conversion site, 1321 in the Muslim Calendar and 1619 on the Coptic calendar equals to 1903 on the Gregorian calendar-so the date on this page is April 15, 1903. Fittingly, this is the year before PUM I was displayed at the Louisiana Purchase Exposition in 1904!

Ultimately, this translation does not seem like something you would find on a train ticket. In fact, all the evidence seems to imply that this paper was more like a page in a calendar. So either PUM I was shipped from Cairo with both a calendar page and a train ticket, which we have not yet located, or the 1972 autopsy group misidentified the paper. Either way it has been a very exciting project!

  • Hadi

    It is in fact a very popular form of calendars we (mainly used to) have in the middle east (Lebanon my case) and they usually contain either a citation or possibly a daily recipe…The photo is very familiar and it feels somehow funny that someone somewhere is trying to figure out what it is 🙂

    Good work


    • mgleeson

      hi Salam, thank you for writing and for confirming our interpretation!