Museum Staff Wrapped To Find Empty Sarcophagus Contained 2600-Year Old Mummy

“You should never believe everything you read in museums,” says Jamie Fraser, the Senior Curator at the Nicholson Museum in the University of Sydney.

A couple of years ago, Nicholson Museum curators cracked open what they thought was an empty sarcophagus, which the museum’s founder Charles Nicholson bought back in the 1850s.

When it was opened It contained the remains of a woman called Mer-Neith-it-es.

“What we discovered completely blew us away,” says Fraser.

Fraser says back in the 1840s the museum’s then-curator had published a catalogue indicating the coffin was empty and “we kind of assumed the curator was right”.

Anyway, just to make sure, Fraser and his team decided to crack open the sarcophagus’s lid and “what we found inside was astonishing”.

“The remains of a complete mummy were still in there.

“The mummy had been terribly damaged because (back in ancient times) looters had found the casket and had ripped the mummy apart looking for the amulets and jewels that would have been wrapped inside,” Fraser says.

If this run-in with grave robbers weren’t enough to cause irreparable damage, Fraser says, poor Mer-Neith-it-es’ next adventures were equally damaging.

“The coffin was then probably carted to Cairo, bought by Nicholson in 1850, then transported up to Alexandria and shipped to London.

“Then it was shipped to Sydney, via the Roaring Forties - because this was before the Suez Canal was built.”

To make matters worse, the coffin was probably stored with the mummy’s head down, “because its contents were all slumped down at the head end of the sarcophagus”.

Fraser says the tomb’s contents were probably shaken about like a “cocktail shaker” on its travels and when staff finally opened the lid there was just a mess of beads, bandages and chunks of a resin, which was used as a preserving agent.

The museum then shipped the sarcophagus along with three other mummies to Macquarie Medical Imaging where they performed CT scans on each.

“Macquarie has some of the best CT scanning kit in the world and the CT images gave us an amazing, hugely high-resolution, wonderfully beautiful picture of the skeleton, the skin and the remains of these people. These are some of the best CT scans that have been ever done on mummies,” Fraser says.

They determined Mer-Neith-it-es’ remains date to the 26th Dynasty, which was about 600BC.

And while the CT scan highlighted the damage she suffered, it also showed Mer-Neith-it-es’ feet were in good condition.

Another find was a dense object in the middle of the coffin. The object, which was denser than wood, turned out to be a perfect representation of the inside of the mummy’s skull, evidently made from the resin the embalmers had poured into Mer-Neith-it-es’ nasal cavity.

Beyond the CT scans, Fraser says the wood used to construct the coffin is also fascinating as it indicates Mer-Neith-it-es’ high standing in society and also that it was an expensive cedarwood imported from Lebanon.

The researchers, have gained a solid understanding of the coffin’s intricate decoration and the museum is recreating these colours on a 3D digital model in collaboration with two scientific illustrators from the University of Newcastle.

Their final work will be displayed when the University of Sydney’s Chau Chak Wing Museum opens next year as part of the Nicholson Museum’s Mummy Project.

It will be Australia’s first mummy room and will integrate digital scientific images of four mummies along with more traditional Egyptology.

“It will be a place where these mummies live again, right here on the edge of the Pacific Ocean,” Fraser says.

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