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Opening the Vaults: Mummies Opens at the Field Museum

By Amy Cavanaugh in Arts & Entertainment on Feb 18, 2012 7:00PM

Ron Testa © The Field Museum
Between Sue the T-Rex and the Tsavo lions, the Field Museum has the coolest permanent holdings among the city’s museum collections. The museum dives further into its collection for its new show, Opening the Vaults: Mummies, which opened yesterday. There are more than 20 mummies on display, but you won’t just be observing intricately carved sarcophagi—Opening the Vaults: Mummies focuses on the work Field scientists did on the mummies in 2011, including performing CT scans and DNA testing.

The mummies, which are from Egypt, Peru, Ecuador, and Chile, entered the Field collection during the 1893 World’s Columbian Exhibition. Because of this provenance, scientists don’t know the archaeological context of the mummies, and they turned to CT scans to see what they could learn about the individuals who were mummified.

Scanning the mummies let scientists see what was beneath the wrappings without incurring any damage. They have been able to determine the age and sex of the mummies, cause of death, what they looked like (one mummy had curly hair), and see objects that were wrapped with them. Accompanying the mummies are images of their CT scans, and viewers can also “scan” a mummy in an interactive exhibit.

On the Egyptian side, there’s a mummified gazelle and three birds of prey that Egyptians purchased as offerings to their gods. Also on display are canopic jars that held internal organs, grave markers, and other objects that would have been entombed with the mummy.

I found the South American side more interesting, since I didn’t know anything about mummies outside of Egypt. South American mummies weren’t embalmed like the Egyptians, but were wrapped in cloth and left to dry in the desert. You can see these “mummy bundles,” which include the body wrapped up with pottery, food, and other objects; a mummified parrot (which still has its green feathers and beak); and the hair and forehead of a trophy head. There are also some artifacts relating to Inca ice mummies, which were children from the noble class who were sacrificed to the gods.

Many of the mummies, which range from 5,500 to 800 years old, haven’t been on display since the Fair because they’re so fragile. The delicate nature of the mummies means they won’t be on view for long—Opening the Vaults: Mummies runs through April 22, and it’s worth your time to check out.