An eerie feeling lingers inside the “Mummies” exhibit at the American Museum of Natural History, where the dead lie, still wrapped in their original burial cloths, along with their most precious belongings.
But this time, museum visitors get to see what is inside the mummies themselves.
Using high-resolution CT scans and computerized tomography, visitors see a 3-D image that reveals the mummies’ skulls, bones and even flesh that is still preserved after 7,000 years. The scans give scientists a deeper understanding into the process of mummification used in ancient civilizations and a closer look at how people lived in ancient times.
“We get to see their lives as individuals — a piece of what life was like in their whole society,” said John Flynn, curator of the exhibit.
Dry climates in Egypt and the Andes Mountains of South America — where the exhibit’s mummies originated — are ideal environments for conserving remains, because the dry environment “sucked the moisture out of the bodies,” Flynn said.
Loved ones would pack the dead in salt, and internal organs, including the brain, were removed. The heart, which was believed to be the center of intelligence, was left in place. After 40 days, the salt would be removed and the body flesh would be oiled.
It was all done out of love, assured Flynn.
The exhibit shows that the burial ritual was not reserved only for the rich. It was also practiced by the common folk of Egypt, pre-Columbian and Peruvian civilizations.
The Chancay people of Peru, for example, kept their mummified loved ones wrapped in bundles of woven mats inside their homes and brought them to festivals honoring the afterlife. The deceased would also be buried in accessible tombs, where families brought food and chicha corn-based alcohol beverages.
Death was celebrated and revered in those civilizations, said Flynn.
“The exhibit is not scary nor spooky, but celebrates a person’s life. These intense ritual processes honor the dead,” he said.
Using an interactive computer tabletop, visitors can unravel the mummies to their bones through the CT scan images. In this section of the exhibit, titled “Wracked With Pain,” visitors can see the mummy of a 34-year-old woman lying in a fetal position.
The scans allowed experts to detect that she suffered from arthritis in her back and neck, Flynn said. With the naked eye, skin on her feet is still visible, and several small pieces of gravel are still embedded in the woven mat she was buried in.
Flynn said the exhibit highlights the difference in how modern Western societies interpret and accept death.
“We tend to isolate ourselves with death,” said Flynn.
But ancient civilizations incorporated the dead in their daily lives for the long term.
“It was the nature of the culture,” Flynn said. “It demonstrates how they felt about their family members. There is a caring process that is very uplifting.”