Exploring Ancient Lives
A journey through time into the lives of six individuals from our common ancestry
The Montreal Museum of Fine Arts (MMFA) is honoured to welcome six mummies from ancient Egypt as it hosts the North American premiere of Egyptian Mummies: Exploring Ancient Lives, an exhibition combining arts and science based on research undertaken by the British Museum.
Until recently, very little was known about who these people were, how they lived and how they died. Thanks to an approach using the latest non-invasive technology, the public will be transported several thousand years back in time to discover how people lived along the Nile between 900 BCE (before the common era) and 180 CE. An accompanying 240 objects will provide added context into their lives, beliefs and deaths.
In the past, the study of mummies invariably involved undoing their wrappings – a highly destructive process rejected by museums. However, the advent of medical imaging techniques – in this case, advanced three-dimensional CT scanning technology – has effectively eliminated this need.
Thanks to an approach using the latest non-invasive technology, the public will be transported several thousand years back in time to discover how people lived along the Nile between 900 BCE and 180 CE.
“It is with great reverence that we welcome Nestawedjat, Tamut and Irthorru as well as their compatriots from Hawara and Thebes,” expressed Nathalie Bondil, Director General and Chief Curator, MMFA. “We are honoured to host these extraordinary witnesses of our common ancestry, so that they may share with us their cultures and trades, their beliefs and sufferings… in a word, their lives.
Thanks to their direct testimonials and the combined research of several scientific fields (such as bioarchaeology and Egyptology), we are able to revisit an ancient civilization. Having been impressed by my visit of a slightly different version of this scholarly and innovative exhibition at the British Museum several years ago, I am humbled to be able to present it in its North American premiere in Montreal. I would like to express my gratitude to those who have brought us a better understanding of mummification and the funerary rituals in ancient Egypt aimed at ensuring immortality. Thanks are also owed, of course, to our six guests from the distant past.”
Co-Curator of the exhibition and Curator of Bioarchaeology at The British Museum, Daniel Antoine explains: “The latest scanning technology has allowed us to virtually peel away the layers of wrappings so visitors can explore the carefully mummified remains of six unique individuals in unprecedented detail. Without unwrapping their remains, we have discovered new insights into life and death in ancient Egypt, such as the embalming methods used to preserve the bodies and their state of health at death. Using the latest science and technology, we can begin to understand the person behind the mask whilst ensuring their integrity remains.”
‘In the past, the study of mummies invariably involved undoing their wrappings – a highly destructive process rejected by museums.’
“Egyptian Mummies is a unique opportunity to discover more about life and death in ancient Egypt. British Museum’s curators, scientists and conservators combined their knowledge to explore CT scan data and study objects from the museum’s vast collection, providing a unique insight into the life of six ancient individuals”, adds Marie Vandenbeusch, Co-Curator of the exhibition, Project Curator at the British Museum and Egyptologist.
“Science and technological advancements have contributed immensely in recent years to understanding and better contextualizing our distant past. The exhibition will carry us back in time to marvel at how life was really lived along the River Nile over 2,000 years ago,” concluded Laura Vigo, curator of the Montreal presentation and Curator of Archaeology and Asian Art, MMFA.
Science and archaeology
The British Museum has 80 Egyptian mummies in its collection, gradually built up since the Museum’s founding in the 1750s. Most were acquired in the 19th century from private European collectors. 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, 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 Egyptologists and bioarchaeologists about important aspects of human biology, 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 mummies’ internal structures without the need to unwrap their fragile remains.
‘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.’
These technological advancements have unlocked valuable biological information about their skeletons. For example, using scoring methods developed by forensic archaeologists and physical anthropologists, age at death can be estimated from dental or skeletal development. The scans can also determine the individuals’ sex and height, the illnesses they suffered from and the embalming process used to preserve them. 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.
Flow of the exhibition: Six Mummies, Six Lives
The ancient Egyptians believed that proper treatment of the deceased was of crucial importance for ensuring the continuation of a person’s existence into the afterlife. The aim was to preserve the entire body in the burial process, both to safeguard it from animals and the elements and to give the person a “home” for eternity.
Each former inhabitant of the Nile leads the visitor along a path that retells their unique story. The exhibition is divided into six galleries that explore different themes: the mummification concept and techniques, beliefs and religions, diet and health, family life and cultural diversity.
The mummies are presented alongside over 240 objects and 3D digital images that reveal the most recent discoveries in Egyptology.
1 – The exhibition opens with Nestawedjat, a married woman from Thebes whose name means “the one who belongs to the wedjat eye.” 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.
2 – Tamut, a middle-aged woman, was for her part a chantress of Amun. Her mummy reveals many amulets that were placed on her skin by the embalmer-priests after applying cosmetic treatments. Tamut lived during the Third Intermediate Period, early 22nd Dynasty, about 900 BCE.
3 – 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. Irthorru was a middle-aged adult (35-49 years) and lived at the Late Period, 26th Dynasty, about 600 BCE.
4 – 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 – and was probably between 35 and 49 years old at the time of her death. She lived during the Third Intermediate Period, 22nd Dynasty, about 800 BCE.
5 – The young boy from Hawara lived during the Roman period. 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. He died around 40-60 CE.
6 – 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 is portrayed with dark curly hair and wide eyes. Research has revealed that he died at about 17 to 20 years of age and lived during the Roman Period, about 140–180 CE. *See attached for detailed information on each mummy.
‘The mummies are presented alongside over 240 objects and 3D digital images that reveal the most recent discoveries in Egyptology.’
Prior to making its North American premiere in Montreal, this exhibition was presented in Sydney, Hong Kong, Taiwan and Brisbane. Another version showcasing eight mummies was previously shown in London.
Credits and curatorial team
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 exhibition design was developed by Sandra Gagné, Head of Exhibitions Production, MMFA, in collaboration with Principal Studio and Graphics eMotion.
Acknowledgements and sponsorship
The exhibition is presented by Raymond James: “We are proud to partner with the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts to help present this amazing exhibition,” said Paul Allison, Chairman and CEO of investment firm Raymond James Ltd. “We look forward to being part of this fascinating journey into the mysteries of mummies.” In collaboration with: Hydro-Québec, Tourisme Montréal, Ubisoft, Graphics eMotion Official suppliers: Air Canada, Denalt Media Partners: Bell, La Presse+, Montreal Gazette Public Partners: Ministère de la Culture et des Communications and the Conseil des arts de Montréal
Egyptian Mummies: Exploring Ancient Lives
The Montreal Museum of Fine Arts
September 14, 2019 – February 2, 2020
Michal and Renata Hornstein Pavilion – Level 2
Featured image: Visualization of the body of Tamut, Third Intermediate Period, early 22nd Dynasty, about 900 B.C.E., EA 22939. © The Trustees of the British MuseumRead also: New Contemporary Art installation at the MMFA
Boasting more than 1.3 million visitors annually, the MMFA is one of Canada’s most visited museums and the eighth-most visited museum in North America. The Museum’s original temporary exhibitions combine various artistic disciplines – fine arts, music, film, fashion and design – and are exported around the world. Its rich encyclopedic collection, distributed among five pavilions, includes international art, world cultures, decorative arts and design, and Quebec and Canadian art. For more information, consult the Website mbam.qc.ca