'Mummies of the World' offers a distinct window into the past

Published: Friday, Feb. 15 2013 9:25 p.m. MST

These Egyptian mummy heads are part of the "Mummies of the World" exhibition, the largest traveling exhibition of mummies and artifacts ever assembled. Two centuries ago, Egyptian mummies were frequently cut into pieces and sold, often to tourists.

American Exhibitions, Inc.

Resting in a dimly lit labyrinth of rooms, a collection of mummies peer out from their display cases as visitors meander past. One fascinating mummy, an 8- to 10-month-old Peruvian dating to 6,420 years ago and known as the Detmold Child, is striking in its preservation, complete with plump cheeks and delicate feet still intact. It is so well preserved that CT scans revealed that he suffered from a very rare congenital heart malformation and a pulmonary infection.

The "Mummies of the World" exhibit, opening Saturday at The Leonardo, 209 E. 500 South, boasts of being "the largest exhibition of real human and animal mummies and related artifacts ever assembled."

The human remains on exhibit range in age from infants to elderly, in condition from astonishingly preserved to only partially desiccated, and ranging from Oceania to Egypt. On display are mummies including the likes of an Andes region woman with two children tucked under her arms and striking long black tresses of braided hair and another adult female resting perpetually in the sitting position in which she was discovered.

Unique to the collection is a howler monkey from Argentina adorned with a feather skirt and headdress, a mummified falcon, baby crocodile and ibis and the sarcophagus and mummy of an ancient Egyptian man dating to about 650 B.C. Mummies found in bogs and crypts, cellars and caves and elsewhere are on display.

While the mummies themselves are fascinating, the exhibition also offers something special for the curious. Interactive exhibits ranging from what a mummy feels like to screens displaying the process of utilizing scientific techniques for the study of mummies are present throughout the exhibit.

According to Alexandra Hesse, president and CEO of The Leonardo Museum, "(The Leonardo has) a unique mission of science and humanities. I think this exhibition is great … it gets kids and adults curious to learn, to unravel mysteries of the past. It's great to get kids engaged without them even knowing."

The exhibition fosters a learning environment about mummies from all over the world. On display are mummies from South America, Europe, Asia and Oceania, as well as Egypt, including mummies both intentionally and accidentally preserved and found in places such as deserts, caves, salt, sand, cellars, crypts and bogs.

Much of the information provided in the exhibition comes from recent studies of the mummies on display. Research by a team of specialists working on what is known as the German Mummy Project included the use of several non-invasive and non-destructive methods such as visual inspection, medical imaging (CT scanning), stable isotope analysis and radiocarbon dating. The exhibition is based upon the scientific methods and the information discovered during this project.

Heather Gill-Frerking, who has a doctorate in anthropology and is the director of science and education for the exhibit and former scientific research curator for the German Mummy Project, said, "The data shows things we didn't expect. It challenges the perception that what you see isn't always what you get."

According to Gill-Frerking, the study of mummies is an ongoing process using modern technology. "We have the ability to study using non-invasive technology and yet we're able to study them from the inside out. We're still learning. … We're using real methods to find real interpretations to understand (the mummies) as real people."

Modern scientific methods have allowed scientists to learn about cultures, including data relating to age at death, sex, health status, diet, region or origin and methods of mummification. Research is so intensive that scientists were able to determine the last meal of one mummy on display that was discovered in a bog.

Placing a heavy emphasis on respect and deference for the mummies, the exhibition focuses on the theme "Real Mummies, Real Science, Real People" and strives to tell the story of each individual in the collection. "Inside every mummy is a story to be told," said Gill-Frerking.

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