The New Guy

by Lynn Grant

Update – this post contains outdated language. We no longer use the term “mummy” and instead use “mummified human individuals” to refer to Ancient Egyptian people whose bodies were preserved for the afterlife. To read more about this decision, follow this link.

Molly Gleeson, the Project Conservator for In the Artifact Lab has been very busy over the last nine months, conserving lots of Egyptian artifacts and she’s finished treatments on a human mummy, an animal mummy and has done a lot of work on PUM I. So, as these projects finish up, it’s time to start some new ones – there’s never any shortage of projects for the Museum conservators. Earlier this month, we brought another of our human mummies out of storage and into the Artifact Lab. And what a mummy he is.

Not what you were expecting, right? No stiff upright form tightly wrapped in bandages. That’s because this is a very early mummy, probably dating to “4000-3600 BCE (or from the Badarian Period to Naqada IIB to use Egyptological time periods”, to quote Dr. Jane Hill, an Assistant Professor at Rowan University, who’s been studying this mummy. Dr. Hill will be presenting some of her initial findings at a mini seminar hosted by ARCE-PA (American Research Center in Egypt – Pennsylvania Chapter) and held at Penn Museum this Saturday, June 1st, open to the public.

Because Molly is going to be away at a conference this week, I’ve begun familiarizing myself with this ‘new’ mummy so I can talk about him to the seminar attendees and our other visitors. When I say ‘new’, he’s only new to the Artifact Lab. Not only is he at least 5600 years old, he’s been in our collections since 1898. He was donated to the Museum by Ethelbert Watts, a prominent Philadelphian who was serving as an Assistant American Consul in Cairo. His history in our collections is a little unclear: we know he was x-radiographed in 1932 and we have this undated early photograph from the Archives. Since this image comes from a glass plate negative, it could date anytime between 1898 and the early 1930s, when the Museum finally switched to film based photography.

We think he may have been on exhibition some time in the past but we haven’t tracked down those records yet. For at least the past few decades, he languished in a box in the Egyptian storerooms until Dr. Hill and Dr. Joe Wegner ‘excavated’ the box in 2011. Since then he’s been the subject of quite a lot of interest – Dr. Hill and her Rowan colleague Dr. Maria Rosado have been examining samples of materials associated with the mummy and sent samples for AMS/C14 dating.

Cool stuff about this mummy: he was buried in the flexed or contracted position, like many Predynastic mummies but he was also buried inside an animal skin bag, which had the animal’s hair left on the inside. He has a small, finely woven basket by his side and an animal skin cap covered by a basketry framework on his head.

Details of some of the items buried with the mummy

Details of some of the items buried with the mummy

Clearly, this guy has a lot to tell us and we’ll keep you posted on what’s up with Bruce (yes, Bruce – it gets hard to refer to the mummies by their accession number and so many get nicknames. This guy has been Bruce to us pretty much since he came out of his box. No disrespect meant; he’s a fascinating individual and I look forward to getting to know him better).