My first encounter with the mummy Neskhons, also known as Djed-Khons-Iwef-Ankh, was in the 1990s on a field trip to the McClung Museum at the University of Tennessee in Knoxville. I was in either first or fourth grade; the details are hazy, but I do remember my mom chaperoned the trip and I remember her and the other adults whispering about a certain detail of this mummy that she wasn’t keen to share (it had something to do with the Osiris/penis/catfish cosmology, but I’m still not sure of the details, and she doesn’t remember now).
Throughout the years I lived in Knoxville, one of my close friends and I would often visit the museum; it was free, we were huge history nerds, and it was close. There were plenty of artifacts we loved and always visited: a terracotta soldier replica, a Chinese camel, and the remains of a dog from the Native American period of this area immediately spring to mind. However, we always came back to the mummy and the Egyptian section the most. Looking back at our photos, that was always where we were drawn. We visited so often that we eventually affectionately renamed the mummy Gilbert, and we still talk about him today. I actually texted her yesterday with an anecdote related to this mummy.
When I first found Mummy Stories I began to think about mummies that had an impact on my life it quickly became apparent that Neskhons left an impression. He is the first mummy I remember seeing in person, and at that point in my young life I was just beginning to explore history and the past. Since I eventually went on to study Ancient History, and Egyptology in particular, at the University of Memphis in Tennessee, the impact was obviously long-lasting. My later studies and work with museums further cemented the impact this early museum visit and encounter with Neskhons had on my life then and now.
As I thought about Neskhons and wanted to find out more, I looked through old photographs and searched the McClung Museum website for any information about the mummy. There was nothing on the McClung website; where did he go? Luckily, I found mummies.com which had a whole entry on Neskhons with lots of information about where he was, and what he had been up to this last decade.
Neskhons was loaned to the McClung from the Western Reserve Historical Society in Ohio. They called back the loan in 2006, soon after my last visit with him, and then sold him in December 2006 at a Christie's Auction. Christie’s had a ton of information about the sarcophagus, provenance, and Neskhons himself, including a translation of the associated texts. Neskhons, who died in his 20s, served as a lector priest to the god Amun in the third intermediate period. There is no record that tells where he was buried or recovered, but he was brought back to the United States in 1900-1901 by Liberty Holden, a Cleveland, Ohio industrialist. Holden donated the mummy to the Western Reserve Historical Society, and the society had an event upon his arrival to unwrap his head, as was common in the 19th and early 20thcenturies. After display at the WRHS and later the McClung, his sale at Christie’s (for $1,136,000 USD) sent him to the Merrin Gallery in New York, New York, and later to a private collector who had the mummy scanned, which is available on YouTube. David Eagleman talks more about the scanning of the mummy and what was learned in his blog, available here. Neskhons is currently on display at the Houston Museum of Natural Science in the Life and Death in Ancient Egypt gallery.
I am now at a point in my career where I am studying museum collections and human remains more broadly, especially in colonial contexts. I always think about what the individual would think of his or her current location and treatment, especially with Egyptian mummies. Sure, Neskhons would probably be happy to know his name is being spoken and he is remembered; but would he be happy to know he had been partially unwrapped for entertainment or sold for over one million US dollars?
I credit Neskhons (and my friends, family, and educators who encouraged this work) with this line of work, and I am eternally grateful to have the opportunity to do this research!
Dr. Katie Clary is an Assistant Professor of History, Public History at Coastal Carolina University in Conway, South Carolina, USA. She worked in museums for 10 years, and has published on museum issues such as access for people with disabilities and ethics. Currently her work focuses on the historical perspectives and implications of human remains in collections and on display at museums. Follow her on twitter at @DrMaryClary or through her website, www.katiestringerclary.com