A step a- “head”: improving storage for our mummified heads

As I mentioned previously, we have several mummified heads in the Artifact Lab. Luckily, all of them are stable and do not require much in the way of conservation treatment – instead we have focused on examination, documentation, and some light surface cleaning, and in one case, the removal of an old exhibit armature.

We have a lot of things going on at the moment, so thankfully, I’ve gotten some help with this work. A couple weeks ago we had a group of 5 undergraduate art conservation students from the University of Delaware in the lab – they spent the month of January interning in our department on a project focused on documenting and cleaning a group of Arctic boats in storage.

Ellen Nigro and Rebecca Selig condition reporting a kayak

They wrapped up that project a day early, and so on the last day of their internship, they got to work on something totally different – and several of them elected to help condition report one of the heads.

Rebecca Cruz, Emily Cummins, and David Brickhouse examining a mummified head

After fully documenting the heads and carrying out any necessary treatment, our main goal is to construct new storage mounts for these remains. Our Egyptian storage areas are fairly packed with artifacts, and because of this, many things are stored in a way that makes them hard to access or see without a lot of handling.

An example of artifacts wrapped nicely in acid-free tissue in a drawer – unfortunately, there is a lot of handling required to see these objects

New storage supports will improve access and provide better protection for these remains. Our plan is to make handling trays for the heads, which can then be housed within custom-made boxes.

An example of a handling tray, made using acid-free corrugated board and Volara polyethylene foam

I’m getting some help with this as well – Artifact Lab intern Melissa Miller has been working on the first tray and box.

Melissa working on creating a custom-made box for one of the heads

We will be sure to post photos once we’ve completed them!


The mystery of the mummified heads

Another frequently asked question In the Artifact Lab is, “what’s the story with those mummified heads, and where are their bodies?”.

A disembodied, but completely wrapped mummified head in the Artifact Lab

Well, it is a bit of a mystery, and we don’t know why these heads are detached from their bodies, exactly.

We have 5 heads in the lab right now, all without any other remains. While two came in as gifts to the museum, the other three were collected by excavation, and all have been in the collection since the beginning of the 20th century. One, the head above, is still completely wrapped. The others are mostly, if not completely, missing their bandages but still have impressions of their linen wrappings and other residues from the mummification process remaining on the preserved skin, hair, and bones.

One of the unwrapped heads, showing evidence of the mummification process. In the Graeco-Roman Period, gold leaf was used to decorate parts of the body, as seen on this man’s head.

Close examination of these heads can provide some clues as to how they became detached. The head in the first image above, for instance, is still wrapped and there is a clean cut through the wrappings-this could not have happened by mistake or through deterioration-it had to have been cut off. Cut marks are also visible on another head-on both the bone and the preserved skin.

The wrapped head, showing the cross-section of the cut linen bandages around the neck. Human remains are preserved inside.

Why were these heads cut off? That’s also unclear, but it is very possible that the heads were severed as a result of looting. Bodiless heads have been excavated from tombs that clearly have been robbed and looting has been cited as the cause of these disturbed remains. Investigations in our archives may also reveal other clues-if we find anything we will provide an update!

While we may never be able to find out who these people were, there are things to discover from their remains-the heads can be CT-scanned in order to understand more about the mummification process (as seen in this study done at the MFA in Boston), determining sex if unclear, and possibly help in figuring out cause of death. DNA analysis may also be possible. Again, we will provide updates as we learn more. To read more about previous CT-scanning done at our museum on other Egyptian mummies, follow this link.