Essentially a behind-the-scenes facility that has been opened to the public, the Penn Museum's Artifact Lab enables visitors to view conservation technicians at work cleaning and restoring mummies and other items of pharaonic Egyptian material culture. Its entryway (above) leads into a glass-walled warehouse stacked high with mummies, coffins and related death cult items from the ancient civilization along the Nile. (Click images for larger)
When it comes to the artifacts and culture of the pharaonic civilization that flourished along the Nile for more than 30 centuries, there’s nothing anywhere else in our region quite like the Penn Museum. It is truly Philadelphia’s Mummy Central. The recent national press coverage of the move of its 13-ton sphinx and temporary closure of the gallery that statue once occupied may have obscured the fact that there are actually four ancient Egyptian galleries in the museum. Three of them are open and remain as interesting as ever: the just-opened new sphinx gallery at the main entrance, the Artifact Lab, where mummies and such are repaired as you watch, and the separate “Egyptian Mummy Secrets and Science” Gallery, focused on a closer look at the ancient mechanics of mummification. Here’s a brief look at them.
In the middle of the warehouse-like Artifact Lab area lies an elegantly decorated 20-year-old woman who died 2,300 years ago. She's mummified and encased in in "cartonnage" made of an ancient papier-mâché-like material composed of glued layers of fabric and papyrus painted with intricate decorations.
Died and lovingly preserved about 2,500 years ago is this young boy whose face was previously covered in gold leaf. On the bottom of his wooden coffin (inset) is an illustration of the Egyptian sky goddess Nut, a protective deity who was being implored to guide him on his journey into the afterlife.
Daily life for employees in the Artifact Lab involves staying up close with your mummies. Here at the front office, technicians work at their desks within a few feet of the mummy of Hapimen, a Egyptian priest who died at age 40 about 2,400 years ago. The small object near his feet is his mummified dog, who accompanied him into the afterlife.
Up close, Hapimen looks fairly well torn apart in the upper area of his body -- the work of jewelry-seeking grave robbers centuries ago. Acknowledging that history, Penn conservators kept the damage as is.
Throughout most of ancient Egypt's history, certain animals were considered sacred, especially cats. This tradition is believed to stem from an early dynasty when a cat saved the life of a Pharaoh from a poisonous snake that slithered into his chamber. Special cemeteries for mummified cats were also common.
When you're in the Artifact Lab, you're watching a real workroom that, at times, takes on the air of both a museum storage room and a morgue of ancient residents.
Conserving irreplaceable mummies and other objects of ancient Egypt's ornate death culture involves as much science as artistic and mechanical skill. And it's a slow process that can go on for weeks or months on any one item.
Conservation technicians are at work in the Lab, You can watch and ask questions. Here, a technician is delicately removing wax from a memorial stele. The paraffin was applied at the excavation site to hold down the object's delaminating painted surface.
The storage area accessible to the public holds dozens of mummy-related items, some of which are awaiting conservation and others that are completed and slated to be placed in new exhibits in another museum area undergoing renovation.
One of those items awaiting touch-up work is the lid to the ornate coffin of Djed-Hapi, a 50-year-old member of a Greek royal family during the Greco-Roman period of Egyptian History, or roughly 2,300 years ago. Behind is a restored mummy mask.
This is a yellow coffin lid and base that has been on loan to the Museum from the Philadelphia Museum of Art since 1932. It's from about 900 BC and made of wood covered with mud plaster painted with incredibly intricate illustrations across every available inch of space.
At this time of Egyptian history -- the third intermediate period -- society's elite class had shifted away from having their mummies put in ponderous stone sarcophagi in favor of these highly crafted, high art wooden coffins that were easier to hide from grave robbers.
In a completely separate area of the Museum, The Egyptian Mummy Secrets and Science Gallery explores the science and history of mummification along with the general beliefs about death and the afterlife that drove Egyptian traditions and practices.
Among the displays in the Secrets and Science Gallery is the mummy of the priest Panehesy, whose special work was related to the Egyptian God of the Sun. He died about 2,800 years ago. The wall displays are typical of tomb art of the period.
Checking out the lid of the mummy case of Karnak priest Nebnetcheru is MIT economist Ariel Zucker, who was attending an academic conference dinner held in the Secrets and Science Gallery. The display explains the meaning of the artworks that cover the case.
Another section features a mummy sporting a large "pectoral" artwork: a chest plate of drawings that speak to his life and the many deities whose blessings are asked to follow him on his way to the afterlife.
Gruesome but instructive of the mummification process is this unwrapped mummy. Bodies of the dead were carefully gutted of their organs and packed in salt to extract the moisture, making them as durable as smokehouse meat. The process was complicated and respectfully performed as a religious rite. Although a famed aspect of ancient Egyptian life, mummification was very expensive and largely confined to members of royalty and society's upper crust.
The final containers in which mummies were interred ranged from ornate wooden coffins to carved stone sarcophagi and often the former within the latter. This is the limestone sarcophagus of the Egyptian priest Hapymenu. Priests, along with physicians and engineers, were some of the highest-status persons in Pharaonic life.