Science & Technology



Researchers unraveling mummy mysteries with help from powerful microscope

Patrick M. O'Connell, Chicago Tribune on

Published in Science & Technology News

Walton and Terpstra taught an interdisciplinary course, "Materials Science and Socioeconomics of Portrait Mummies from Ancient Fayum," in which students researched the mummy's discovery and how it made its way to Evanston. They also analyzed the mummy's materials, examined the portrait for clues about how and why it was made and studied the techniques used to compose the portrait.

The portraits are lifelike depictions of a person's face, but researchers have questions about what exactly they were meant to represent. In the case of the mummy girl, the accompanying portrait appears to be of an older girl or young woman. Walton and Terpstra offer possible theories: that it was a depiction of her mother or aunt, that it was a painting selected at random, or that it was meant to represent what the family envisioned the young girl looking like if she would have grown older.

Researchers do not know how the girl died, but since there were no signs of trauma on the remains, it appears she likely perished from disease. Terpstra said the three most likely culprits would have been malaria, tuberculosis and smallpox, which had just appeared during the second century. He ruled out leprosy, which would have shown up on the skeleton, he said. Life expectancy at the time was about 25 years, Terpstra said, and only about half of all children made it to age 10.

Researchers believe the girl was wrapped naked in the linen and was probably not wearing a dress when she was prepared for mummification.

The mummy will be included in an upcoming art exhibit "Paint the Eyes Softer: Mummy Portraits From Roman Egypt" at the university's Block Museum of Art. The exhibit, which is free to the public, begins Jan. 13 and runs through April 22. Student research will be included in the exhibition.

The exhibition will present Roman-Egyptian mummy portraits and related artifacts from the site of ancient Tebtunis in Egypt, near Hawara. Most of the objects in the exhibition are on loan from the Phoebe A. Hearst Museum of Anthropology at the University of California, Berkeley, which holds one of the largest collections of mummy portraits from a single site in the world. The Hibbard mummy will complement the other portraits and objects and help provide context for the exhibition.

The mummy portraits "look like us," said Lisa Corrin, director of the Block Museum of Art.

"When we see them, they look like people that we know," Corrin said. The portraits also "remind us of our own mortality."

"They have such potency," she said.


Studying the art aspect of the mummy, Corrin said, can help determine how pigments found in one part of the world ended up on a portrait in another part of the world.

"This is material proof of how far-flung the empire was," Corrin said.

The interdisciplinary research of the mummy, she said, also helps tie together the worlds of art, science and history.

"They're learning that discovering about history is not just about reading a book or researching documents, and that science has a place in the world," Corrin said. "We can learn a tremendous amount about the past, and learning what these portraits were made of can tell us a tremendous amount about the people that made them and what their world was like."

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