PITTSFIELD, Mass. “Are they real?”
Maybe it’s because of Wii and 3D, but when visitors to the Berkshire Museum see the three mummies, some of them just can’t believe the human remains are more than 2,000 years old, museum staffers say.
Skulls and bones. The pulp of a tooth. Blackened toes that peek out from layers of ancient, resin-imbedded cloth. Seated in front of a video screen, we can peer deep inside a body cavity at severed tissue, evidence that long, long ago, a flint blade sliced and removed lungs, liver and intestines.
“We are not just studying ancient Egypt, we are studying people,” said Maria Mingalone, the museum’s director of interpretation.
“Wrapped,” an in-depth science-and-history exhibit, explores Western society’s fascination with mummies and how the study of them has evolved from its destructive beginnings to non-invasive research with high-tech medical machinery.
It’s the first mummy exhibit in North America to reunite an Egyptian father and a son, following research by Dr. Jonathan Elias, director of the Akhmim Mummy Studies Consortium, who partnered with the Berkshire Museum to organize the show.
‘Wrapped!: Search for the Essential Mummy’
WHERE: The Berkshire Museum, 39 South St. (Route 7), Pittsfield, Mass.
WHEN: Through Sunday, Oct. 31. Museum is open from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Saturday and from noon to 5 p.m. Sunday.
HOW MUCH: $15 for adults, $8 for children age 3-18; free for children under 3.
RELATED EVENTS: At 1:30 p.m. Saturday, Oct. 16, “Inside Pahat,” a guided 3-D video tour, is scheduled.
MORE INFO: (413) 443-7171, berkshiremuseum.org
Pahat, the Berkshire Museum’s own mummy, has been on display continuously since 1903. But it wasn’t until 2007 that Elias discovered that a mummy at Vassar College in Poughkeepsie was Shep-en-min, the son of Pahat.
“They were 60 miles away from each other,” said Stuart Chase, the museum’s executive director. “I like to say that he [Shep-en-min] came from down the Hudson instead of down the Nile.”
The third mummy is Pesed, a female unrelated to the other two, which traveled to the exhibit from Westminster College in Pennsylvania.
“Wrapped” is a big, dense exhibit, spanning three rooms on the second floor, and the Egyptian aura begins outdoors, at the museum entrance, where feathery stalks of real papyrus poke out from large metal planters.
During the next several weeks, hundreds of children will pass through those doors, visiting “Wrapped” as a school field trip.
On a recent visit, middle-schoolers who had already studied ancient Egypt seemed especially enthralled and didn’t seem to notice that this is a scholarly exhibit devoid of popular culture’s “monster mummies.”
“You can smell the smells of a mummy over there,” a 13-year-old girl said, pointing to a large box with sniff holes for scents like cinnamon, myrrh, frankincense, turpentine and bitumen.
Animal mummies — birds, cats and a baby crocodile — are also favorites with younger visitors.
“Animal mummification was a big business in Egypt,” said Mingalone. “Almost every animal that you find in Egypt, you would find as a mummy.” Cat mummies alone number more than 80,000, she says.
The 13-year-old girl, who couldn’t wait to see the human mummies, hurried past the desiccated cats to the third room, where, for a moment, she found herself alone with the three corpses, and then returned to the first room.
“At first, I was a little scared,” she admitted.
The first room looks at why we have been intrigued by mummies since the Middle Ages. Dutch illustrations from the late 1500s and early 1600s depict silo-like pyramids and mummy-inspired Biblical scenes, like the picture of a dead Lazarus swaddled like a mummy.
We learn about mummification, the two-month-long process of preserving a body for the afterlife by applying a blend of bitumen, a naturally occurring black mineral tar, with oils and resins from native shrubs.
After this deep introduction, visitors enter a second room filled with artifacts and photographs. Some of the most stunning objects are from the Berkshire Museum’s own collection.
A cartonnage, a decorative cover that once adorned a mummy’s coffin, is here, while the coffin, which was carted out of Egypt by Napoleon, now rests in the Louvre in France. A linen mummy cloth or shroud, nearly intact after many centuries, is covered with exquisite cartographs in rich colors.
There are many photographs from the “Gold Rush of Mummies,” 1827 to 1835, when many mummies were bought and shipped to Europe. Ladies and gentleman were invited to salon-like gatherings, where mummies were unwrapped and their dried flesh exposed.
“You destroy the mummy by doing that,” said Mingalone.
An illustration from a London newspaper in the late 1880s depicts a procession of coffins being carried from Egyptian tombs.
“The Egyptians themselves were partly responsible. They were short on cash. And they literally had hundreds of thousands of mummies,” Mingalone said.
Mummies were being unwrapped and ruined as late as the 1970s.
It was the development of CT scans for medical imaging that radically changed the study of mummies, as scientists could now look inside the bodies without unwrapping them or damaging tissue.
Pahat, the museum’s 2,500-year-old mummy, was scanned last February, after being wheeled ever so gently out of the museum and into a van for a trip to Berkshire Medical Center.
Pahat was born in 300 B.C. and lived in Akhimin, 290 miles south of Cairo, where he worked as a priest in the temple of Min, god of fertility and harvest.
When he died, at about age 60, he was buried in Ipu, 10 miles south of Akhimin.
In the late 1800s, his mummified body was untombed and purchased by a Rochester, N.Y. professor, who sold it in 1900 to Zenas Crane, founder of the Berkshire Museum.
Although the exact cause of death is unknown, the CT scan revealed that Pahat had osteoporosis of the spine and probably suffered painful backaches.
His son Shep-en-min, who had a fractured femur, died before Pahat, when he was a young man.
No one knows what happened to Mrs. Pahat.
“It’s rare to have family members together,” said Mingalone.
In the third room, the three mummies lie next to their coffins in glass cases.
Near the bodies are the video stations where visitors use a touch screen to move through the reddish-brown innards of each mummy. The more prominent the person, the more resin we see inside the body.
“Sometimes they took all the organs out. But the heart was almost always left with them,” she said.
Other internal organs were removed and preserved in canopic jars. The tissue inside the skull was drained through the nostrils and thrown out, as the Egyptians believed that thoughts came from the heart, not the head.
“Brains weren’t important,” Mingalone said.