Vampire mummy?!?

In the last couple days we found out a bit more about one of the animal mummies we recently x-rayed.

The clue is related to one of the cat mummies, which came into the lab looking like this:

CG2015-4-9 in (not original) coffin

CG2015-4-9: cat mummy in (not original) coffin

First of all, you might be asking yourselves, how did we keep this amazing detail from you before? This mummy was previously stored in an creepy/wonderful vampire coffin with a glass cover (not original to the mummy). It was sealed inside the coffin, presumably to make it more attractive (?) for collection/sale. In order to get a better look at the mummy and carry out treatment, conservator Alexis North had to remove it from the coffin. Once it was out , we could see that the head had been intentionally cut off.

CG2015-4-9, view from top showing where head was cut off and exposing bones inside

CG2015-4-9, view from top showing where head was cut off and exposing bones inside

Inside the coffin, Alexis found some bits of bones, including this:

Portion of a maxilla (upper jaw), including teeth, 10X magnification.

Portion of a maxilla (upper jaw), including teeth, 10X magnification

This is a portion of the maxilla (upper jaw) of a cat with some linen and even some fur still attached! Based on it’s size and the fact that the incisor is not fully erupted, we* estimate that this belonged to a kitten that was only a few weeks old when it died. The size of the bones corresponds well with the size of the kitten’s body we saw in the x-radiograph. Here’s that image again, showing how small the kitten is in relation to the size of the mummy:

The radiograph shows that there is only a tiny kitten under the wrappings of this cat mummy.

Left: Cat mummy. Right: Radiograph of the cat mummy, which shows that there is only a tiny kitten under the wrappings.

There are other bits of the skull that we found inside the coffin too. We’re not sure when the head was removed, but afraid that the head may have been cut off to fit the mummy into the vampire coffin. We’ve made a new box for the mummy, one that is both more appropriate for this object and for the museum environment, and that will certainly be more protective.

Cat mummy in a new storage enclosure

Cat mummy in a new storage enclosure

*Special thanks to Dr. Kate Moore for her expertise and time!

What’s inside those animal mummies?

Last week we x-rayed 8 animal mummies from our collection. These mummies were previously in storage and are in the Artifact Lab for much needed treatment and storage upgrades. As you can see in the images below, some of them are incredibly fragile with extensive damage. X-radiography is completely non-invasive and is one of the best tools we can use to study these mummies.

Recently we heard that researchers at the Manchester Museum and the University of Manchester found that about 1/3 of their mummies are “fakes” (and we use this word rather loosely – read the article in the link to find out more).

How do ours measure up? Well, even though we have a much smaller sample size, we found our stats to be a little bit better – 7 of the 8 that we just x-rayed contain animal remains, and one contains the remains of 3 animals, so the number of animals actually outnumbers the number of mummies in this instance!

Below we’ve posted paired images of the animal mummies and their radiographs. Our initial findings are written in the captions for each image. See if you can figure each one out, and if you see something that doesn’t make sense or something that we haven’t explained, please write into the comments below this post and we’ll follow up! All radiographs were captured with a GE Inspection and Sensing Eresco 65MF4 tube on a digital x-ray detector at 35kV 6mA for 6 seconds.

Cat mummy (left) and x-ray image (right) showing a complete cat body inside.

L-55-13: Mummy (left) and radiograph (right) showing a complete cat body inside.

ibismummy4

97-121-27: Mummy (left) and radiograph (right) showing an ibis in the lower 2/3 of the wrappings.

Mummy (left) and radiograph (right) showing a fragmented ibis body inside.

97-121-28: Mummy (left) and radiograph (right) showing fragmented ibis remains inside.

Mummy (left) and radiograph (right) showing an ibis inside.

E3539: Mummy (left) and radiograph (right) showing an ibis inside.

Mummy (left) and radiograph (right) showing an ibis inside, plus an extra bone and part of the ibis beak.

E3541: Mummy (left) and radiograph (right) showing an ibis inside, plus an extra bone and part of the ibis beak lying outside the mummy bundle.

Mummy (left) and radiograph (right) showing nothing inside the wrappings.

CG2015-4-1080: Mummy (left) and radiograph (right) showing nothing inside the wrappings (it was likely intended to be a hawk or falcon mummy).

kittenmummy

CG2015-4-9: Mummy (left) and radiograph (right) showing a young kitten in the upper half of the wrappings, missing its head.

snakemummies

97-121-8: Mummy (left) and radiograph (right) showing at least 3 snakes inside (scale not included, but this mummy is about the length and width of an iphone).

Animal mummy x-rays

The Artifact Lab has been a busy place lately (thanks in part to a big collections move project), and just last week we got a special delivery of some animal mummies from storage which have not been examined in a long time, and have never been x-rayed.

A cart with animal mummies, some which are still wrapped in tissue paper.

A cart with animal mummies, some which are still wrapped in tissue paper.

While everything has to move out of Egyptian storage, these animal mummies will not be moving offsite – we are finding a temporary home for them elsewhere in the museum. Nonetheless, this move is a chance to examine everything, to upgrade storage mounts, and to carry out minimal conservation treatment as needed.

Project conservator Alexis North photographs an ibis mummy in the Artifact Lab.

Project conservator Alexis North photographs an ibis mummy in the Artifact Lab.

A view of an ibis mummy during treatment to stabilize loose linen wrappings (the silver "kisses" are small weights)

A view of an ibis mummy during treatment to stabilize loose linen wrappings (the silver “kisses” are small weights)

So while we have these mummies in the lab, we thought we’d also take the opportunity to x-ray them using our new(ish) digital x-radiography equipment. There have been stories in the news recently about what x-rays and CT-scans have revealed about animal mummies in other collections and we’re interested in knowing how ours compare.

Alexis arranges an animal mummy on the x-ray digital capture plate below the x-ray tube.

Alexis arranges an animal mummy on the x-ray digital capture plate below the x-ray tube.

We will follow this post with some images of each of the mummies and what the radiographs revealed. Sorry to leave you hanging but I promise it will be worth the wait! Also stay tuned to the museum’s Facebook and Instagram accounts for another mystery mummy quiz!

A recap of Death Salon: Mutter Museum

I just returned to work after 2 fascinating days of Death Salon: Mutter Museum, an event filled with presentations, speaker panels, Q&A sessions, murder ballads, a Dark Artisan’s Bazaar, and Death Quizzo.

Ask a Mortician! at Death Salon: Mutter Museum

Ask a Mortician! at Death Salon: Mutter Museum

I have attended many conferences, but none quite like this one. There were a wide variety of speakers presenting on topics related to death, how different cultures deal with death (both past and present), and our relationship to death and mortality. I spoke on the first day about my work on the mummies here at the Penn Museum – mostly about how we treat them today and how this has changed over time, using examples including PUM I, our baby boy mummy, Wilfred/a, and Nespekashuti. But you’ve heard about all of them before. Let me provide a brief outline of all of the other speakers, with links as appropriate.

  • Dr. Marianne Hamel is a medical examiner who spoke about what it’s really like to be a forensic pathologist vs. what you see on TV. She also was a consultant for the wildly popular podcast Serial and co-founder of Death Under Glass, which also had a booth at the Dark Artisan’s Bazaar, selling watches, umbrellas, notepads, etc. featuring beautiful forensic microscopic images.
  • Alexis Jeffcoat (Chemical Heritage Foundation) and Emma Stern (Laurel Hill Cemetery) spoke about the Friends of Laurel Hill Cemetery and their efforts to make Laurel Hill a place for the living as well as for the dead, with vibrant community programming.
  • Ryan Matthew Cohn spoke about historical skeletal preparations and models of the human body, along with his own work to make exploded and dissected skulls.
  • A panel discussion about American death spaces with Colin Dickey about the battlefields of the American Civil War and Bess Lovejoy on Hart Island: The World’s Biggest Tax-Funded Cemetery. I had never heard of Hart Island before, where unclaimed bodies and bodies of the poor and stillborn are soon to number one million. There are recent efforts to document the burials and transfer jurisdiction of the island from the Department of Corrections to the Parks Department.
  • Evi Numen, Mutter Museum exhibitions manager, spoke about the Curious Story of One-Eyed Joe and the 1867 Anatomy Act, discussing the struggle to legislate cadaver dissection and ownership.
  • Dr. Paul Koudounaris (a now 5-time Death Salon speaker!), who has extensively researched charnel houses and ossuaries, discussed various cultures’ relationships with the dead. He specifically shared information about Indonesian communities who mummify family members and exhume them each year to care for and celebrate them, and sometimes even keep them in their homes.
  • A panel discussion about anthropodermic bibliopegy (books bound in human skin) with Mutter Museum Curator Anna Dhody, analytical chemist Dr. Daniel Kirby, Juniata College Chemistry Chair Dr. Richard Hark, and Death Salon Director and USC medical librarian Megan Rosenbloom. Their project is aimed at surveying and creating an inventory of books bound in human skin, and they are using peptide mass fingerprinting (PMF) to determine this. So far they have tested 22 books – 12 are actually human, while the others are sheep, cow, and even faux skin. The Mutter has the largest known collection in the world, with 5 authentic human skin books.
  • A presentation by Sarah Troop about the rituals and art of child death in Mexico. She discussed the tradition, which used to be practiced in many Latin American countries, where dead children become a hybrid between saints and angels called angelitos, and the most famous angelito, Miguel Angel Gaitan from Argentina, who died in 1967.
  • Dr. Norma Bowe discussed her death class at Kean University which she has been teaching for 15 years and has a 3-year wait list. She uses experiential learning in the class and they make several field trips, including to a hospice care facility, a Ronald McDonald house, a funeral home, a cemetery, a maximum security prison, a crematory, and a medical examiners office. A book has been written about her called The Death Class and its currently being turned into a TV show.
  • Elizabeth Harper spoke about incorrupt saints, which apparently aren’t very easy to identify just by looking at them. Her presentation included images of saints she’s visited and a little game of “Incorrupt or Nah”.
  • Artist David Orr presented his work photographing human skulls from the Mutter Museum collection and mirroring one side to create perfectly symmetrical results. This project, Perfect Vessels, can be viewed on his website.
  • Penn physician Dr. Erin Lockard spoke about death from the doctor/daughter perspective in a conversation with Death Salon Director Megan Rosenbloom. She shared her experiences both as a physician who specializes in geriatric medicine and how experiencing her mother’s illness and end of life has affected her work.
  • Mutter Museum Director Dr. Robert Hicks gave a presentation entitled Exquisite Corpses: Our Dialog with the Dead in Museums. He spoke about our relationship and discomfort around post-mortem imagery, and how other cultures are ahead of us in terms of articulating an aesthetic of death, decay, and mortality.
  • Christine Colby discussed the issues for transgender people in how to preserve their identity in death and and the work that is being carried out to assist transgender people and their families and friends.
  • The formal presentations of the conference concluded with a session entitled Ask a Mortician LIVE. Two morticians, Sheri Booker and Caitlin Doughty (Death Salon co-founder), fielded audience questions about their work.

The talks were incredibly interesting and often quite inspiring (and even tear-provoking), and there was an enthusiastic audience of at least 200 people by my count (probably more). The engaging day-time programming was supplemented by some terrific evening events, including behind-the-scenes tours of the Mutter, a Death Ball with a performance of 15th-century funerary music by The Divine Hand Ensemble, murder ballad performances, and a Death Quizzo. This conference had some of the best opportunities for people-watching too. Unfortunately I didn’t capture many photos but if you’re interested you can see some on the Death Salon Instagram account.

Death Salon: Mutter Museum

I’m excited to be presenting at Death Salon: Mutter Museum on Monday afternoon.

Death Salon is an organization that was founded to “bring together intellectuals and independent thinkers engaged in the exploration of our shared mortality by sharing knowledge and art.” They hold annual events in the spirit of the 18th-century salon to encourage discussions on topics related to death, mortality, mourning, and their effects on culture and history.

The Mutter Museum event will be the fifth Death Salon – previous meetings were held in Los Angeles, San Francisco, London, and most recently at the Getty Villa.

Death Salon: Mutter Museum is kicking off tomorrow afternoon with a walking tour through 3 historic downtown 18th-century cemeteries, organized by the Obscura Society Philly. Tomorrow evening will be a VIP Death Ball (and gotta love this: the dress code is haute macabre). There will be 2 days of talks which begin on Monday morning, covering topics by a wide variety of speakers including osteologists, museum curators, scientists, medical examiners, artists, and musicians, and more (and me). I’ll be speaking about the conservation of Egyptian mummies at the Penn Museum and how this practice has evolved over time.

I’ll follow up sometime next week with a little recap of the talks and any other interesting tidbits, which there certainly will be.