Egyptian Mummies have captivated me since I was a child. Through my years growing up in New York with, and then working at, our beloved Metropolitan Museum of Art, I always found myself coming back to visit these travelers from Egypt along with so many other people from around the globe.
It was only in the last few years that I discovered these world-famous mummies are not the only ones in our fine city, and on my most recent trip home, I decided to try something a little different. So, today I will not be talking about the Met’s Mummies, rather their four less-often visited countrymen who live in New York’s new cultural heart, Brooklyn.
On a gorgeous, warm, and sunny day, I went into the humble but proud Brooklyn Museum and made my way to the third floor. I find myself surrounded first by the Ashurbanipal II’s friezes and their ancient and modern story. The Brooklyn Museum is one of the few major museums that also tells you about the secondary lives of objects, and their stories in getting to Brooklyn and Daesh’s attacks on their home are all detailed. But I’m not here for these endangered stories.
Walking into the Amarna galleries (something every Museum should have) and into further Egyptian galleries, I spot the vibrant empty Cartonnage of Nespanetjerenpare, and I am instantly blown away by depth of colour and state of preservation. You would swear it was painted just yesterday! Because Nespanetjerenpare is somewhere else—I can only conclude, sadly, that his fate is unknown. Further along, there is the mummy mask of an unknown Romano-Egyptian. Its meaning is stated but nothing more. Beyond him, I find the entrance to the Mummy chamber and meet Thothirdes, our first Egyptian Mummy.
Thothirdes was a priest in the Late Period. As such, he guards the entrance to the Mummy chamber as a lone sentinel. He has his own massive display case, and aside from a ruined cartonnage on the other side of the room, the room is his alone. His mummy is used to illustrate exactly how an Egyptian mummy functioned: as a home for the tri-partite soul of the individual in death. Aside him is a statement on the museum’s mission to use the mummies as ‘an important point of departure for learning about ancient Egyptian religion, medicine, and science. / Always remembering that these preserved human remains represent real human lives[.]’
Looking at Thorthides, I admire the quality yet simplicity of the wrappings he was afforded. While they were not the intricate diamond patterns found on the wealthiest individual’s mummies, he was not effectively bound up in a sack either as with some individuals. He was also lucky not to have been unwrapped, unlike one of his colleagues further on. While he is no longer in his old tomb, Thorthides has a new tomb, a new role, and no shortage of admirers to pay respects to him, although sadly no offerings as food is forbidden in the galleries. I bid Thorthides farewell and move on into the Mummy Chamber proper.
On entering, you have the three remaining mummies to your immediate right. The rest of the chamber is devoted to the equipment meant to help them in the afterlife. While there is one fellow clearly out in his wrappings, I am confused at first where the other two mummies, Hor the priest and Lady Gautseshenu, have run off to. It’s only on closer inspection that I realise these lucky two are still sealed in their coffins! A rare find indeed as few mummies were so lucky. I gaze in awe at their cartonnage and good fortune—the desired effect for them. I do wonder if being left standing isn’t uncomfortable, however.
Each of the two has a description and image of CT scans that were done on them. Comparisons are made with these and literary sources on the mummification, such as Herodotus’s writings. Interestingly, they even mention a method where organs were mummified and placed back inside the individual’s body as with Hor and Thothirdes. This flew in the face of everything I knew about mummification and made me wonder if this was something afforded priests. The fact that they were also left in their cartonnage was shocking as one gets the impression that not a single Mummy was spared being woken up, and oftentimes unwrapped or even ground into mummy powder!
While Hor and Gautseshenu stand against the wall, their gazes fall on this one Romano-Egyptian fellow. He has a Fayuum portrait over his mummy, and as with most Fayuum portraits, it is an awful likeness by modern standards! His name is sadly lost to the ages, and that might be one reason why he has been given pride of place. Reading his description, I’m surprised to learn that he was unwrapped in the 1950s! I would have thought maybe the 1850s, but this was late indeed. Even more surprising to learn, he was actually rewrapped in 2010 for this very exhibition! I cannot tell whether this was out of respect for him or to show him as visitors would expect to see him, but either way, I imagine he is somewhat happier now even with his name forgotten.
A quick look around sees canopic jars and a 25-foot book of the dead scroll as well as everyone’s favourite: animal mummies! I read some more of the descriptions, taking in what I consider to be thoughtful, respectful, and at times innovative approaches to interpreting ancient Egyptian Mummies and mortuary practices. The Brooklyn Museum thus fulfils her mission of presenting Egyptian religion, science, and medicine whilst showing respect for the individuals mummified and their culture as a whole.
I finally have to move on as a friend contacts me requesting images of ancient Egyptian paddle dolls, both of which are luckily on display. I head out from the museum to meet a friend, but I use my time on the NYC Subway to contemplate the Museum I have seen and the Mummies I have met.
While the Brooklyn Museum’s collection is humble compared to the Met or the British Museum, their approach to their human remains and quality are, in many ways, superior. This was especially my impression for the four Egyptian Mummies I found in their Mummy Chamber. At no point did I feel, as at other museums, that the person whose mummy I was viewing had been robbed of their agency.
Along with magnificent preservation and conversation of their Egyptian-mummy-related holdings, The Brooklyn Museum never makes you feel that you’re looking at a mere object, especially with the Egyptian Mummies that find their home there. Rather, they approach Egyptian Mummies according to how the ancient Egyptians themselves viewed their dead. You are given the background on these and then constantly reminded when various aspects of mortuary aspect are explained.
Along with these, different and newly-discovered information about mummification and beliefs are presented as informed by science and Egyptian literature and compared to everything we thought we knew. More than anything, this museum really made me think (and overthink!), and it is well-worth the trip out to Brooklyn to be asked the question: ‘So you think you know Mummies?’ Because ‘Think again!’
Henry Curtis Pelgrift is a PhD Candidate in Archaeology at University of Liverpool. He is a life-long New Yorker, lover of Egyptian culture, and has interned at the British Museum and Metropolitan Museum of Art.