Ancient Lives New Discoveries at the British Museum

It goes without saying that the British Museum does mummies well. It’s like saying that the Natural History Museum is good for dinosaurs. Or the Science Museum is good for, well, science. People are still talking about the 1972 Tutankhamun exhibition, like Bettany Hughes at the Tower of London and tourists always ask to see the treasures of the boy king. So when the museum announced their new exhibition Ancient Lives New Discoveries, this intrepid museum adventurer was very excited indeed.

The museum promises a fresh perspective on the museum’s most famous residents. Quite a challenge, considering that mummies have been a big part of the museum since the first one arrived in 1756. How can they tell a new story after 258 years? Enter Science.

Intrigued? You will be.

As you enter the exhibition space, you’re invited to explore the “lives of eight people” rather than eight mummies. By presenting these mummies as people, instead of as dried out things (like the Gebelein Man) or something hidden away in an elaborately decorated sarcophagus the way of seeing them is radically altered. They aren’t ‘just’ mummies, they become much more human. Placing the statue of a family group by the text really hammers this home: mummies are people too.

So, let’s meet the cast.

Padiamenet: A Temple doorkeeper
Padiamenet: A Temple doorkeeper
Tjayasetimu: A Temple Singer
Tjayasetimu: A Temple Singer

(Note: the Unlucky Mummy who is rumoured to have caused the sinking of the Titanic was also a Singer (or “Chantress”).

A Wealthy Boy
A Wealthy Boy
A Christian Mummy
A Christian Mummy
The Gebelein Man ("Ginger")
The Gebelein Man (“Ginger”)

This is Ginger, so called for his tufts of red hair and his ginger beard.

Tamut: a high-ranking priest's daughter
Tamut: a high-ranking priest’s daughter
The Mummy of an unknown man from Thebes at the British Museum
The Mummy of an unknown man from Thebes at the British Museum
An unusual mummy from the Roman period
An unusual mummy from the Roman period

Does anyone else think that the last one looks a bit like the Joker?

The Museum unravels the stories of these 8 people without having to literally (in the truest sense of the word) unravel them. Unwrapping the mummies used to be the only way to really investigate them, but it destroyed them in the process. Counter-productive, non?

The British Museum has a policy to never unwrap a mummy, so how do they find out what’s beneath the bandages?

Enter the science I was telling you about earlier.

The advances made in CT scanning and virtual imaging have revolutionised how Egyptologists can explore the insides of mummies and allows them to really get down to the bones of what caused their deaths.

5 out of the 8 mummies had dental issues that led to death.

The other 3? We’re still not too sure. The lesson? TAKE CARE OF YOUR TEETH. Granted, it’s a bit of an odd message to get from a museum, but an important one nonetheless.

The images peel back the layers of bandages and reveal all sorts of things, such as the Gebelein Man’s last meal, and the amulets sworn by the mummies.

Scans of a mummy
Scans of a mummy

There are even 3D prints of the amulets – the prints might just be white plastic right now, but they represent new knowledge that we didn’t have before. The plastic acts as a modern echo of the ancient amulet, a brittle ghost of the original, a tangible shadow.

The science never gets gimmicky, it is there is reinforce the history, the human story. This is the exhibition’s strength; it never loses that human focus.

I really recommend seeing this exhibition, you can see the details on the British Museum’s website. They seemed to have learned their lessons about over-crowding, there was always lots of room to move about and a chance to get really close to the remains and artefacts on display.

In fact, I managed to get closer to the objects than I ever have in the permanent galleries!

If you’re thinking of taking the kids, but want to make sure that what’s on display won’t upset your little ones, then you can ask the friendly folk at the families desk for a bit of a sneak peek – they have photos of the main displays. If you do chose to go ahead, there’s a trail for the kids to do.

Oh, and remember: take care of your teeth or you could be on display in a museum in a few thousand years!

5 Comments Add yours

  1. Thanks Jack, I can’t wait to go. Thanks for mentioning the photos on the family desk that is really useful.

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