October 31, 2009 - October 31, 2010
VERY Postmortem: Mummies and Medicine
Legion of Honor, Gallery 1
“You have so often shown an attitude of friendly cooperation with us, and of sympathetic understanding of the problems of small museums, that now I am emboldened to ask of you and the de Young Museum a very great favor. We need an Egyptian mummy!”
This was the urgent plea from the director of the Haggin Museum in Stockton, California, in October 1944 to Dr. Walter Heil, director of the de Young Museum. Dr. Heil’s reply in the affirmative arrived the following month, and soon after that the museum’s mummy was shipped to Stockton, where it has been ever since. This exhibition is a homecoming celebration marking the return of the mummy of Irethorrou, one of four human examples in the Museums’ collection, to the Fine Arts Museums. (The Museums also own a crocodile mummy, currently on loan to the California Academy of Sciences.)
Nothing about the ancient Egyptians has captured the imagination more than their mummies. There is something spellbinding about peering into the face of a person who lived several thousand years ago, and few things make the ancient Egyptians come to life more than their remains.
To the ancient Egyptians, the preservation of the body was an important factor in attaining and maintaining an afterlife. Mummification evolved from the concept of preserving the body as a receptacle for the life force, which survives after death. Although great numbers of mummies were exported as “curiosities,” they have been an underestimated and underutilized resource that is finally becoming recognized as a rich site of preserved material. Today modern scientific examinations of these relics are providing exciting new insights into the conditions under which these individuals lived, bringing us even closer to an understanding of who they were.
The priest Irethorrou was buried in a vast but little-known cemetery in Akhmim (an important city in Middle Egypt, on the east bank of the Nile) about 2,600 years ago. The result of examinations on this mummy represents the core of the exhibition. It is currently undergoing a state-of-the-art, non-invasive technological study as part of the effort of the Akhmim Mummy Studies Consortium to gather computer-scanned images of mummies from this site. Together with other examples, these examinations are bringing to life Egypt’s final era of greatness during the Late Period from the 26th Saite Dynasty (664–525 b.c.) and later. By means of CT (computerized tomography) scans and other tests, these Egyptologists and scientists pinpoint the age, sex, and health of these individuals, and through forensic facial reconstruction they observe family resemblances. In addition to the mummy of Irethorrou and three-dimensional images gleaned from its CT scans, this exhibition also includes other Egyptian “cult of the dead” antiquities and historic prints that reveal our ongoing fascination with mummies.
Hundreds of mummies have been excavated from Akhmim. These are now found across the United States and the world. One of them will now make its way back to San Francisco after 65 years to be CT scanned at Stanford University. It will then be included in the Akhmim study and featured in this fascinating exhibition that combines art with modern science.
About Exhibitions at the Ancient Art Council
Exhibitions are an important aspect of a curatorial department. The Ancient Art Department has organized and mounted over the years exhibitions showcasing art from different ancient cultures in the Mediterranean. Some of these exhibitions are also accompanied by scholarly catalogues written, edited, or with contributions by the curator in charge of Ancient Art and Interpretation, and published by the Publications Department. Exhibitions, like publications, fulfill the fundamental commitment of the Department to education, research, and scholarship.