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Modern science provides unprecedented look at North America's largest collection of mummies
Detail of the coffin: Eye of Horus, the falcon god. © 2015 The Field Museum. Photo: John Weinstein.

LOS ANGELES, CA.- New scientific findings once bound in ancient and mummified Egyptian and Peruvian remains are revealed as the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County presents the world premiere of Mummies: New Secrets from the Tombs, the first touring exhibition of North America’s largest collection of mummies. Organized by The Field Museum in Chicago, the exhibition provides a rare and immersive look at their preeminent collection of mummies—which has never traveled outside of the museum—going beyond mummification in royal Egypt to explore the surprising similarities and vast differences between these societies, their environments, and the preparations they made for the dead in the afterlife.

On view from September 18, 2015 through January 18, 2016, Mummies: New Secrets from the Tombs features 20 mummies and coffins including one of the oldest mummies in the world, from Pre-Dynastic Egypt to Pre-Incan Peru, alongside archaeological treasures such as stone sarcophagi fragments, mummified heads and trophy skulls, animal mummies, and pots to bring food and beer into the afterlife. Using modern and non-invasive research techniques, scientists and curators were able to avoid the hazards of unwrapping the fragile specimens to virtually uncover a wealth of new discoveries about the mummy individuals—each sacred storehouses of natural and cultural information. The exhibition presents these findings through the use of CT scans, 3D-printed casts of bones and burial figurines; forensically reconstructed sculptural busts by renowned artist Elisabeth Daynès; and interactive touch tables for digitally unwrapping mummies to explore their interior.

“The role of a natural history museum is to serve as a laboratory for the exploration of our natural and cultural pasts, and science is our pathway,” said Jane Pisano, NHM President and Director. “Mummies: New Secrets from the Tombs uses modern science to challenge and help to unravel what we know about these ancient peoples and their cultures, and in doing so, offers the world an intensely up-close look at The Field’s preeminent collection of mummies, many of them tucked safely away in vaults for over a century.”

The NHM presentation of Mummies: New Secrets from the Tombs explores the individuality of each mummy, all of whom were once living men, women, and children. Throughout the exhibition, scientific examination uncovers details about the mummies as individuals, their cultures, and why they were mummified.

Divided into two main sections, Peru and Egypt, each with its own introduction to discuss who is inside the wrappings of the mummies, how climate helps preserve human remains, and modern methods of examination. Burial tombs have been reconstructed within each area to gain a deeper understanding of the ingeniousness of burial techniques, and how living communities outside related to the mummies. Peruvian and Egyptian sections are linked together by a component that compares and contrasts each of the societies and their different responses to death, burial and the afterlife.

Mummification in Peru began 2,000 years before Egypt. Mummies explores the Chinchorro, Paracas, Chancay, Nazcan and later Incan traditions of burial and mummification. CT scans, X-rays, and 3D-printed skulls unlock mysteries inside the five Peruvian mummies profiled in the exhibition. One of the Peruvian mummy bundles is visually unwrapped by CT scan, and movingly reveals both a woman and her baby who probably both died in childbirth.

The Peruvian section of Mummies examines the different mummification and burial practices of Peruvian societies with burial objects often indicating their roles in life as weavers, fishermen, etc. Defleshing blades used in the mummification process and a clay burial mummy mask show how the Chinchorro peoples memorialized their dead, while the Chancay culture’s sitting bundles are portrayed in layers of colorful textiles, surrounded by guardian figurines and pots of food and chicha (corn beer). In contrast to the Egyptians, who tried to seal tombs forever and guard against thieves, Chancay families of Peru would quite often enter tombs to replenish food and drink offerings to their relatives.

The Egyptian section of Mummies: New Secrets from the Tombs recreates an immersive walk-in tomb, featuring real stone sarcophagus fragments and a real, intricately painted coffin from 600 BC (26th Dynasty). Visitors can understand why Egyptians mummified cats, baboons, gazelles, and crocodiles, and included these animal mummies when burying their loved ones. An extremely rare “naturally preserved” mummy of a woman pre-dates even the beginning of dynastic kingdoms in Egypt. Tools, canopic jars to hold preserved organs, simple and complex wrapping techniques, and gilded masks from later periods highlight the different mummification methods (artificial and natural) used in different eras of ancient Egypt.

Recently conserved mummies from Pre-Dynastic through Roman-Era Egypt are some of the most extraordinary in the exhibition. The 14-year-old boy “Minirdis” was mummified with beautiful cartonnage coverings and a gilded mask, but was interred in a used coffin from an earlier dynasty that, poignantly, was too big for him. Seeing the opened coffin of Minirdis in two pieces allows visitors to understand how the coffin was constructed. The mummy of a 40-year-old female of the Roman era, known as “Gilded Lady,” had remained safely stored in the Museum’s vaults since 1893, along with several other mummies from the World’s Columbian Exposition. CT scans have revealed her age, a slight overbite, and Cleopatra-like curly hair. Visitors can also meet a boy from the Ptolemaic era (305 - 30 BC)—about eleven years old when he died. His family arranged for superbly gilded and decorated masks.

“Many cultures throughout world history practiced mummification, but in Egyptian and Peruvian cultures, the practice was the oldest, most widespread, and most ingenious,” said Richard Lariviere, President and CEO of The Field Museum. “Hidden away for centuries, these alluring and mysterious mummies can now be experienced in-depth in a scientific, cultural, and highly personal context. The Field Museum is pleased to partner with the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County, and to launch a national tour of this extraordinary exhibition in Los Angeles.”

Planned around 10,000 square feet of exhibition space, Mummies has been installed inside NHM’s newly renovated galleries on the Ground Level and features a dedicated museum store inspired by the exhibition.

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