Field Museum unwraps history of mummies

By Taylor Hartz | Staff Writer

The Field Museum is, quite literally, unwrapping history with its new exhibit—Mummies.

The museum’s latest special exhibit is digging into the history of ancient Egypt and Peru by bringing visitors back thousands of years as they tour an immersive and interactive display of mummies, ancient human remains and amulets, totems and gifts given to the mummified dead.

Visitors start the Mummies experience by catching a glimpse of human remains, once mummified, that were unwrapped for scientific study. This startling sight may not be for the faint of heart, but offers a peek inside the mummy wraps and coffins seen throughout the rest of the exhibit. Moving forward, guests learn about new technologies that allow scientists and curators to keep mummified remains in tact while learning about the lives and deaths of the individuals wrapped inside.

By using CT scans and 3D imaging to study mummies, scientists can explore remains non-invasively. “Before, you would have to unwrap the mummy, or even cut it open, to learn more about it. Now we can use non-destructive methods to learn so much more about
the past,” explained exhibit curator Bill Parkinson. “This exhibition allows visitors to see how we use modern technologies to learn about the lives of ancient peoples and cultures.” 

While most of us have some knowledge of mummification in Egypt, the exhibit also digs into how the practice started in Peru. Peruvians had perfected mummification years before it began in Egypt, and continued for years after Roman influence halted the tradition for Egyptians.

Exhibit curator Ryan Williams added that the Peruvian mummies in the exhibit predate the Egyptian ones. “One of the unique things about this exhibition is the inclusion of the Peruvian mummification traditions, which started much earlier than in Egypt and lasted until the Spanish conquest 500 years ago,” he said. “That 7,000- year history of Andean mummification is something most people have never heard of previously.”

Artifacts on display include two-and-a-half-foot tall Peruvian beer jars—once shown at Chicago’s 1893 World’s Fair—and masks made by the Chinchorro people
of Peru which covered the faces of the wrapped remains.

Egyptian mummies of different animals, including cats, chimpanzees and baby croodiles can be seen on display and explored through a series of x-ray images.

Recreation of a Peruvian tomb. Photo by Taylor Hartz.

Life-size displays show what a Peruvian tomb looked like—an underground room with mummified family members propped up like living people. The mummies were wrapped in clothes and wore masks with faces painted on them, and were surrounded by items like jugs, drinks and food. Egyptian hieroglyphics show messages that translate to requests like, “When I’m dead, bring me beer.”

The exhibition, created by the Field Museum, opened on March 16 and will
be available to visitors with the purchase of a Discovery or All-Access pass until
April 2019.

Published on May 2.

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