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Field Museum presents rarely seen ancient remains "unwrapped" through latest technology
Peruvian Mummy. Peruvian mummies were buried in the fetal position, sometimes with grave goods such as the two small ceramic figures, shown in this scan. © The Field Museum.

CHICAGO, IL.- An unprecedented and limited-time exhibition will be on display at The Field Museum starting February 17 and running through April 22, 2012.

Opening the Vaults: Mummies is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for the public to view over 20 mummified individuals from Egypt and Peru held in The Field Museum’s extensive collections, including complete humans and animals. The Museum obtained most of these remains from the World’s Columbian Exposition held in Chicago in 1893. Many have not been on display since and are being shown in their original 19th century display cases.

But make no mistake – Mummies is truly a 21st century exhibition. The Field Museum has a large collection of Egyptian and Peruvian mummies, many of which had not been thoroughly studied until last year because avoiding damage was a priority. In 2011, Museum scientists performed non-invasive CT scans of several mummies, virtually “unwrapping” them with digital technology. In the exhibition, these mummies are shown along with remarkably detailed scan images, allowing visitors to see for the first time pointers to the methods used for mummification, signs of serious injuries and illnesses, and offerings and jewelry placed inside the wrappings.

“By studying the preserved remains of ancient peoples we can learn more about their lives. By using modern scanning technology, we have uncovered a wealth of new information without damaging the specimens in any way. We can now see pathologies such as injured bones and distorted or missing teeth. Evidence such as this tells us a great deal about the health of individuals,” said Robert D. Martin, A. Watson Armour III Curator of Biological Anthropology at The Field Museum.

The individuals in Mummies date from about 5,500 to 800 years ago. In addition, the exhibition features artifacts related to Egyptian and Peruvian cultures, including canopic urns used in ancient Egypt to store internal organs of the mummified dead, an Egyptian stele or grave marker, and Peruvian grave figurines and gold objects.

Manipulation of the body after death has occurred in many different cultures. In Egypt, deliberate mummification, including removal of certain body parts, the salting of the body to dry it, wrapping, and internment in a coffin or sarcophagus, was intended to preserve the individual so that he or she could travel into the “other world” each night and return to the tomb during the day. Objects were placed in the tomb to help the individual on this journey. Many of the Egyptian remains in Mummies are in highly decorated coffins, although others are simply wrapped in linen.

Unlike the Egyptian remains, the Peruvian mummies featured in the exhibition were not embalmed. Instead, the people of ancient Peru wrapped their dead in cloth bundles and left them in the desert. Over the years, dry air and other natural factors combined to preserve them.

The exhibition also features a human head from the Nasca people of southern Peru (100-500 AD). The Nasca buried human heads in some graves. The lips and eyes were held closed with cactus spines and a hole was drilled in the forehead so the head could be suspended on a cord. Recently, scientists at the Field Museum analyzed isotopes and DNA from the heads and found that they were not from geographically distant groups. So the heads did not come from distant warrior rivals but from individuals living in the local Nasca region.

Preserving animals through mummification was a common practice in ancient Egypt and in Peru and the exhibition features the remains of six animals, including birds. These mummies were often purchased or made as offerings and buried along with humans.

Because of the fragile nature of these mummies, they will be on display for a limited time. The exhibition is only open for two months (February 17 through April 22) so visitors who want to see these intriguing specimens and the Museum’s latest scientific discoveries need to hurry before the mummies are returned to their "vaults" behind the scenes at The Field Museum.

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February 17, 2012

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