Making its North American premiere at the MMFA, this internationally acclaimed exhibition produced by the British Museum reconstructs the lives of six people who lived along the Nile, using an innovative approach that combines the arts and science. Accompanied by digital visualizations and more than 200 objects from ancient Egypt, these encounters offer a portrait of who these individuals were, presented with the utmost respect. Age, beliefs and the diseases they suffered from: each mummy has a story to tell.
Tamut, a middle-aged woman, was a chantress of Amun. Her mummy reveals many amulets that were placed on her skin by the embalmer-priests after applying cosmetic treatments. These carved and moulded charms served to harness supernatural powers to protect the deceased from danger and endow them with special, godlike abilities. The carved scarab beetle with a flat base that lies on Tamut’s chest is a “heart scarab,” an amulet inscribed with a spell that prevented the misdeeds in the owner’s heart from being revealed to the gods during judgement.
Tamut’s mummy, early 22nd Dynasty, about 900 BCE probably Thebes, Egypt, EA 22939. © The Trustees of the British Museum
Nestawedjat was a married woman from Thebes whose name means “the one who belongs to the wedjat eye.” Also known as the Eye of Horus, it was a symbol of integrity. She was probably between 35 and 49 years old at the time of her death in about 700 BCE and had lived during the so-called Kushite Dynasty. Her body was carefully preserved using the most sophisticated embalming techniques of the day. It was dried in natron salt, ritually anointed with perfumed oils and filled with packing materials. Amulets were placed on her body, which was then wrapped in linen, so as to protect her in the afterlife. Through this process, the body was refashioned into a divine image with the qualities and attributes of Osiris. This perfect embodiment would supposedly serve as a physical anchor for the spirit aspects of the person – such as ba and ka – thus enabling them to exist in the next world and to travel freely between the realms of the living and the dead.
Inner coffin of Nestawedjat, 25th Dynasty, about 700-680 BCE, EA 22812a. © The Trustees of the British Museum
Irthorru was a high stolist priest of Akhmin’s temple in charge of dressing the god Min, and was the master of secrets. His mummy bears witness to a life spent in service of the gods as well as the power that priests of his rank held in ancient Egypt. Running a temple was a complex task. The largest among them were bona fide towns, having their own administration and economy, including the production of food and equipment, animal husbandry and record keeping. Priests and priestesses had access to the finest foods, whereas the diet of the common people consisted largely of cereals; bread and beer being staples. Diseases and physical injuries could be perceived as punishment from the gods. Priests of the goddess Sekhmet were likely physicians who practised conventional medicine. Papyrus documents shed light on ancient beliefs and pharmaceutical remedies used, including water lily to treat pain, honey used as an antiseptic, and even opium.
Mummy of Irthorru. Late Period, 26th Dynasty, about 600 BCE, EA 20745. © The Trustees of the British Museum
An unnamed priestess takes us back to the temple of Amun, in Karnak. She appears to have been a singer – a title considered to be highly prestigious from the 22nd Dynasty onwards. Her attire would have likely consisted of lavish garments, precious ornaments, makeup, oils and perfumes. To highlight the contours of her eyes, she would have used kohl (made of galena or green malachite) as an eyeliner. This makeup also had antibacterial properties and was believed to ward off the evil eye. Her body would have been adorned with jewellery that served to fend off evil forces. These ranged from simple bone ornaments to colourful extravagant necklaces. Temple singers and priests, as part of the elite, wore wigs during banquets and celebrations and kept their natural hair short or shaved, as body hair was considered impure.
Temple Singer, 22nd Dynasty, about 800 BCE Thebes, Egypt, EA 25258. © The Trustees of the British Museum
The two-year-old boy from Hawara lived during the Roman period. He was wrapped in many layers of bandages and covered with a finely decorated cartonnage mask with gilded face and chest. The care with which he was prepared for the afterlife reflects the newly revered place children occupied in Egypt at the time – mummification of children was rare before then. Important societal changes were occurring in the Nile valley, which by then was a melting pot of Greek, Roman and Egyptian traditions, and this hybridity is evidenced in burial practices. In this exhibition, clothing, wooden toys and pottery shards (ostraca) with inscriptions offer a glimpse into the world of children’s play and imagination.
Child’s mummy, Roman Period, about 40–60 CE Hawara, Egypt, EA 22108. © The Trustees of the British Museum
Mummification continued to be practised into the Ptolemaic and Roman periods, while growing cultural hybridity brought new-found techniques. Similar to hundreds of others found in the oasis of Faiyum, the last mummy in the exhibition is decorated with a portrait. His identity is unknown, but on the wooden slab, this young man from Thebes with dark curly hair and wide eyes is portrayed wearing a white tunic with a pink stripe (a clavus) and a mantle. While the clavus was a symbol of rank in Rome, in this case it is likely an allusion to Roman customs. Curiously, mummies from this period were identified with a tag, no doubt to prevent any mix-ups, in the face of an increasingly popular embalming practice.
Mummy of a young man. Roman Period, about 140–180 CE, probably Thebes, Egypt, EA 6713. © The Trustees of the British Museum
The British Museum has 80 Egyptian mummies in its collection. Mostly acquired in the 19th century from private European collectors, very little was known about who these people were, how they lived and how they died. In keeping with its code of ethics, the British Museum refuses any and all invasive intervention on its mummies, including the removal of their wrappings. Hence, for over a decade, they have been the focus of new research using cutting- edge scientific methods that preserve the mummies’ integrity. This innovative approach has shed light on different aspects of the life (and death) of six individuals who lived in ancient Egypt between 900 BCE and 180 CE. The CT scans of their remains offer information that is seldom accessible in other sources of archaeological evidence.
The excellent condition of the British Museum’s mummies has informed anthropologists and archaeologists about important aspects of human biology, genetics, diet, diseases, burial practices and embalming techniques.
The spread of x-ray devices in the 1970s eliminated the need for invasive techniques. Since then, computerized tomography (CT) scanning and high-resolution three-dimensional imaging have replaced traditional x-ray machines. CT scanners use a combination of x-rays and a computer to create an image. Specifically, the x-ray beam circles around the body, creating thousands of transversal images. The data is then gathered by cutting edge software, which creates detailed 3D visualizations that allow us to view the mummys’ internal structures without the need to unwrap their fragile remains.
As such, the combination of physical anthropology, Egyptology, scientific research and conservation has brought our understanding of these past inhabitants of the Nile valley into vivid focus.
To round out the exhibition, a captivating educational space was designed by Perrine Poiron, PhD candidate in History and Egyptology (UQAM and Université Paris-Sorbonne), in collaboration with Ubisoft. In it, visitors can explore ancient Egypt via a digital experience combining the Egyptian Pantheon and rituals observed for passing into the afterlife.
Audioguides are also available for both adults and children, allowing everyone to dig deeper into the age-old Egyptian myths and customs.
You can also access the audioguide from the MMFA app.
See the Cultural Calendar, for the schedule of guided tours.
The presentation of this exhibition is a collaboration between the British Museum, London, and the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts. It is curated by Marie Vandenbeusch, Project Curator, and Daniel Antoine, Assistant Keeper and Curator of Bioarchaeology, in the Department of Egypt and Sudan, British Museum. Laura Vigo, Curator of Archaeology and Asian Art, MMFA, curated the Montreal presentation, the design of which was developed by Sandra Gagné, Head of Exhibitions Production, MMFA, in collaboration with Principal Studio and Graphics eMotion.
The exhibition is presented by Raymond James in collaboration with Hydro-Québec, Tourisme Montréal and Ubisoft. The Museum acknowledges the vital contribution of Air Canada, Denalt, the MMFA’s Angel Circle and media partners Bell, La Presse+ and the Montreal Gazette. The exhibition also received support from the Department of Canadian Heritage through the Canada Travelling Exhibitions Indemnification Program.
"The exhibit, which runs from Sept. 14 to Feb. 2, 2020, offers a chance 'to really understand how they lived, not just the mummy, but as people.' "
« Un grand voyage qui permettra aux visiteurs de se plonger dans l’Égypte antique à travers l’art et la science. »
Nabi-Alexandre Chartier, ICI Radio-Canada Télé, Téléjournal
« On apprend des nouvelles choses sur leurs vies, sur l’époque. […] on voit ce que l’imagerie nous permet d’apprendre sans ouvrir, sans détruire les momies. »
"The Museum will host six mummies from overseas, in an effort to educate Montrealers on ancient Egyptian life, death and the afterlife."
« Toutes ces informations, on le sait grâce à la technologie qui permet de dévoiler les mystères des momies et raconter leurs histoires. C’est vraiment la particularité de l’exposition. »
« Vraiment fascinant! »
Eugénie Lépine-Blondeau, ICI Radio-Canada Première, Tout un matin
« C’est la grande exposition de la rentrée. »
« Cette exposition a aussi toute une dimension qui est scientifique. »
"And if a few minutes in her [Nestawedjat] company is any indication, visitors will leave feeling they’ve made six new friends."
"Finding yourself in the same room with a mummy, you feel the life force of a person who hasn’t been alive, in the literal sense, for nearly 3,000 years."
« C’est absolument fascinant. Et oui c’est familial. Même si on peut penser que c’est un peu morbide, je pense que ce ne l’est pas, au contraire. »
Catherine Richer, ICI Radio-Canada Première, Le 15-18
« On a été capable de faire en 3D une projection de leur corps sans les bandelettes et ça, c’est assez impressionnant. »
« C’est hyper intéressant. »
Catherine Brisson, 98,5 FM, Puisqu’il faut se lever
« Au-delà des cercueils richement ornés, au-delà du statut social élevé immanquablement associé à la momification, ce sont donc des êtres vulnérables, que l’on rencontre ici, de chair, de sang, et de souffrance. »
"The newest technologies unravel the mysteries of 3,000 years ago."
"Get a glimpse of life and death in ancient Egypt through these amazing artifacts."
Christine Long, CTV, CTV News Montreal
« Je vous invite fortement à aller voir cette exposition. »
Anaïs Guertin-Lacroix, Qub Radio, Dutrizac sur mesure
« Je souligne rapidement l’audioguide : on en a créé un pour les adultes, mais aussi un pour les enfants. C’est une visite familiale. »
« C’est fou ce qu’on a appris là-dedans. C’est fou ce que la science fait dire à ses vieilles momies. »
« Si vous voulez voir ces cercueils, ces momies, ces couleurs, ces objets, tous ces secrets cachés que la science vient de révéler, bien c’est l’exposition Momies égyptiennes : passé retrouvé, mystères dévoilés. »
"If you are in Montreal, you must go and see it."
Dr. Joe Schwarcz, CJAD 800, The Dr. Joe Show
« C’est vraiment une occasion unique que nous offre le MBAM! »
« C'est une belle manière de faire découvrir un pan de l'histoire humaine aux minis! »
« Elles nous fascinent depuis toujours et elles n'ont pas fini de nous révéler leurs secrets. »
« C'est une première nord-américaine qui allie art et science. »
« Vous allez adorer votre visite! Une sortie en famille fort intéressante qui générera de belles discussions intelligentes avec les vôtres. »
« Je ne peux que trop vous recommander d’aller voir cette exposition unique en son genre. »
« C’est vraiment impressionnant! »
« Pas besoin de vous dire que cette exposition est un succès sur toute la ligne: nous avons même envie d’y retourner pour y passer encore plus de temps! À ne pas manquer! »
« C’est la grande exposition de la rentrée au Canada »