In the Postcards department of the December 2012 issue, editorial intern Elizabeth Franey writes about the Mummies of the World exhibition, which is on display at the Witte Museum in San Antonio through January 27, 2012. In an interview with the Witte’s Director of Communications, Shannon Standley, Franey takes a closer look at the secrets mummies can reveal about the past.
Q: What is a mummy?
A: A mummy is a human or animal whose soft tissue (hair, skin, fingernails, toenails) is preserved long after death. Where as typically, a body would decompose and become a skeleton, mummy’s body can be preserved due to the environmental conditions in which they are buried.
Q: How will the exhibition change people’s knowledge and perspectives on mummies?
A: One of the key things that is interesting about this exhibition is that it is called Mummies of the World- meaning that these aren’t all Egyptian mummies. When most people think of mummies, they think of wrapped Egyptian mummies in a sarcophagus. However, wrapping the bodies of the dead was a cultural tradition specific to ancient Egypt. This exhibit teaches people that mummies come from all over the world—Egypt, Asia, Oceania, South America, and Europe. These mummies that come from other parts of the world weren’t intentionally mummified, but rather were mummified because of the natural environments they were buried in.
Q: What is different about the process of natural mummification?
A: The discovery of people mummified naturally gives us a wealth of information about their lives and cultures. For example, the exhibition includes the Vac Mummies, a Hungarian family— father, mother and child—who were discovered beneath a church in Vac, Hungary. In 1994, when the church needed to replace the floors, they discovered 200 crypts beneath the floorboards, where congregation members had been laid to rest more than 200 years ago. Because of the dry, cool conditions underneath the floor, the bodies of the church members had become naturally mummified. This particular family had been buried with their records, so we know who they are, how they died, everything about them.
Q: How does the modern technology used give us insight into the lives of the buried?
A: The discovery of these mummies and the use of modern technology have allowed us to learn a wealth of information about how people lived and died in ancient days. Thanks to carbon dating and CT scanning, we are able to figure out almost everything about them. It can tell us how old a person was, how tall, if it was a male or female. We are able to see if a person had major arthritis, or if a child had any growth abnormalities that likely contributed to their death. One CT scan even revealed that a woman was buried holding several children’s teeth clenched tightly in her hand. We are able to learn all this without ever disturbing the mummies.
Q: What other type of displays are found within the exhibit?
A: The exhibition offers a lot of multimedia and interactive displays that are fun and entertaining for adults and children, alike. The exhibit has lots of flat screens, with films explaining how the carbon dating and CT scanning tests are done, as well as interviews with the scientists that did the actual testing. Hands-on activities allow you to feel what embalmed human skin, bones, and the dried fur of animals feel like.