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One of the most popular exhibits at the Field Museum of Natural History in Chicago is our ancient Egyptian exhibit, which goes by the name “Inside Ancient Egypt.” It’s a large exhibit and not surprisingly one of its biggest draws is the myriad of mummies on display. There are around twenty, originating mostly from the later periods of pharaonic history (which is, coincidentally, the source of most mummies you see in museums).

Of all of these mummies the favorite of museum goers and staff alike is usually Harwa. Displayed to the right of Harwa is his elaborate coffin. What makes Harwa particularly interesting is the fact that his head is unwrapped and you can see his face very clearly; there is also the fact that Harwa is unusually well preserved, a happy fate certainly not shared by all Egyptian mummies.

I thought it might be fun to do an article about Harwa. What can his mummy tell us about him? What can his coffin reveal to us? When did he live and what did he do in life? In point of fact it’s amazing what we can discern about an ancient person just from his mummy and coffin, so I’d like to share some facts about Harwa with you.

First, allow me to clear up a mistake I occasionally see associated with this mummy. This is not the mummified body of the more famous Great Steward and nobleman of the early seventh century BCE who erected a sprawling tomb (TT37) at el-Assif, Thebes. That was an earlier man by the same name. Although “Harwa” was not necessarily a common name in Egypt (and is not even Egyptian in origin, as we shall see), it is attested for numerous individuals in the later dynasties. Possibly the only commonalities between that Harwa and our museum’s Harwa is that both shared the same name, both lived in the Late Period, and both were buried in the vast Theban necropolis.

Now that we’ve gotten that out of the way, let’s see what we can learn about Harwa. We’ll start with his mummy.

The mummy of Harwa

The mummy is that of a Late Period man dating to the late seventh century BCE, specifically to around the early 600s BCE. I’ll explain later why I assign that date to him. While he is commonly referred to as coming from Dynasty 25, I might instead suggest very early in Dynasty 26 (Saite Period, so named because the Delta city of Sais was the administrative capital of Egypt at that time).

Harwa's display in the exhibit

Harwa’s display in the exhibit

I should note before continuing that the placement of Dynasty 25 varies according to the preferred chronologies of certain Egyptologists: some place it at the end of the Third Intermediate Period and others at the start of the Late Period. The Field Museum favors the latter placement, as do I. This article is not for the purposes of a discourse on dynastic chronology but the Third Intermediate Period is that length of time during which Egypt was ruled primarily by Libyan-borne pharaohs. Therefore I personally find Dynasty 25 a nice fit for the start of the Late Period—it marks a time of profound transitions when Egypt was fast losing its autonomy, was ruled by foreign powers, and was beginning to approach its historic end. Dynasty 25, for instance, was when pharaohs of Kushitic (Nubian) heritage ruled Egypt.

The mummy of Harwa is displayed behind an anthropoid glass shield on which is mounted a rich array of funerary amulets. None of these belong to Harwa (and, indeed, they represent a quantity arguably considerably larger than most mummies would have at any one time). The amulets come from different periods but are excellent examples of their type. They are displayed in front of Harwa to represent an approximate positioning of funerary amulets upon the mummified body, inside the wrappings. In fact, in Harwa’s X-rays I have a difficult time finding clear indications of even a single amulet in his wrappings. Not all people used them in burial.

Harwa’s age at death is inconsistent in published material: I’ve seen a range anywhere from early 30s to around 60. While most of us familiar with Harwa tend to favor the older age at death, to my knowledge a properly trained forensic expert has never examined the mummy or its X-rays. When you gaze upon his face, you tend to see that of an elderly man—and 60 years would’ve been very elderly in a time when most males in the Near East averaged about 35 years of life.

An unusual fact about Harwa is that he was the first mummy to be flown on an airplane and the first to be publicly displayed by X-ray (Martin 1941: 386-388). In the early 1940s the Field Museum loaned him to a special General Electric exhibit in New York where he was displayed behind a fluoroscope that would automatically light up at timed intervals, to reveal the skeleton inside the wrappings.

Harwa has been X-rayed more than once through the years, as have many of our Egyptian and Peruvian mummies at the Field Museum. In the late 1970s Harwa was the subject of a medical analysis at Northwestern Memorial Hospital in Chicago, where researchers examined X-ray images and took a biopsy of his right hip to search for signs of disease. Their conclusion is that in life Harwa suffered from ochronosis, a disease causing acid buildup in connective tissues and leading to calcification of some joints and articular surfaces. The researchers found this most notable in the narrowing of Harwa’s hips and knees and by the dark-stained deposits in his vertebra (Stenn et al 1977: 566-568), which looked to be calcified.

Lateral X-ray of Harwa; note the density of the intervertebral discs

Lateral X-ray of Harwa; note the density of the intervertebral discs

Similar conclusions have been reached in many other Egyptian mummies in museums around the world, but more modern analyses might indicate otherwise. The world-leading center for the scientific study of Egyptian mummies is the Manchester Museum in northern England. Their scientists have been engaged in advanced and sophisticated scientific examinations of mummies for 40 years. Researchers at Manchester have noted that the finding of ochronosis might be incorrect, and might be better explained by changes in images of the body caused by the mummification process itself, largely due to imaging contrast issues (Adams & Alsop 2008: 38).

Harwa’s face is that of a serene and dignified elderly man. He almost appears to be asleep:

The face of Harwa

The face of Harwa

The preservation is practically perfect. The only damage is a missing little patch of skin above his right eye (not visible in the above photo), which exposes a bit of the frontal bone of his skull. That is likely to be the result of relatively modern damage, from the unwrapping of his head. It isn’t clear whether Harwa’s head was unwrapped before he even came to Chicago in 1904, or at some point in the early years of the museum’s possession. In any case it is no longer the practice to unwrap mummies most anywhere in the world, due to changes in ethical attitudes and, perhaps even more so, to the availability and superiority of CT scans as a tool to study mummies.

Some ancient damage is evident to Harwa’s nose. It is common to see collapsed noses on mummies such as Harwa, due in part to the pressure of the bandages simply collapsing the cartilage through time. But if you stand before Harwa and look carefully at his right nostril (not visible in the above photo), you will notice a large tear. This artifact is damage from the ancient embalming procedure of excerebration, by which the embalmers thrust a hooked rod up the nostril and into the skull to remove the brain matter a bit at a time.

The above image gives you a hint of how densely Harwa is wrapped by linen material, which is also evident as the dense white material outside the body cavity in the X-ray image above. Generally the body was first wrapped by thin strips of linen, after which any number of burial shrouds might have been wrapped fully around the body. As was common in the Late Period, both Harwa and his bandages were coated with dense deposits of hot pine resins (both to seal the body and to glue the wrappings together).

Harwa appears to have undergone an elaborate and expensive mummification. In this late stage of Egyptian history mummification standards were slipping, and one tends to find fewer well-preserved bodies compared to somewhat earlier periods when the mummification process had been perfected to a high art. Included in Harwa’s embalming was the traditional removal of internal organs: stomach, liver, lungs, and intestines. Unlike the ruined brain that had been removed through the nose, these four organs were preserved. They remain forever with Harwa, wrapped into four bundles between his legs:

Full frontal X-ray of Harwa; note the four bundles between his legs

Full frontal X-ray of Harwa; note the four bundles between his legs

Many readers are probably familiar with the four Canopic jars in which the embalmers traditionally placed the four organs. This practice had been largely discontinued at the end of the New Kingdom (c. 1068 BCE), perhaps because tomb raiders often smashed and destroyed the vessels (and the organs within them). While Canopic jars were still being produced and would continue as such for a long period of time, they were usually left empty or the stone from which they were made not even hollowed out. The organs in the later periods were often restored to the body cavity or placed between the legs (Ikram & Dodson 1998: 289).

So with Harwa we have a man upwards of sixty years of age who lived in the late seventh century BCE. He is extremely well preserved. Harwa’s exposed flesh is hairless, which might be due to his job in life (see below) or the putative practice of shaving off the hair for mummification and burial. Certainly not all Egyptian mummies are bald, but Harwa himself is indeed smooth.

The cause of death is unknown. Many of our mummies in storage have been CT scanned, which sometimes is a better diagnostic tool for finding evidence of disease, but Harwa has not been and nothing stands out in his skeleton. As stated, the old finding of ochronosis might be in error and wouldn’t have been fatal in any case. At some point it’s possible Harwa will be CT scanned by our curators, and perhaps then some evidence of pathology will present itself.

The coffin of Harwa

The elaborate coffin in which Harwa was buried is typical of an upper-class man from Dynasty 25 or Dynasty 26. It further confirms Harwa’s elite standing and wealth in his culture, at a time when most people still could not afford mummification and its requisite, costly burial equipment.

Coffin of Harwa

Coffin of Harwa

Unfortunately the coffin is difficult to photograph well because of the dim lighting of the display as well as the faded texts and vignettes, but one can begin to appreciate how expensive such a coffin would be. Unlike many coffins, it’s possible this one was custom made for Harwa. It’s covered with depictions of deities and other scenes and lengthy religious texts, many of them excerpts from Book of the Dead spells (a fairly common feature of Late Period coffins). Altogether the coffin’s design and iconography confirm that it comes from the Theban necropolis (the same massive burial ground where the great New Kingdom pharaohs were buried centuries earlier, in the Valley of the Kings).

The beard jutting from the chin is not the sort men actually wore in life, but is a symbol of Osiris, the god who ruled the underworld. The same is true for the green face, which is actually an unusual feature, but Osiris was also a fertility god associated with the fecundity of the Nile Valley crops.

On the coffin’s midriff is a funerary scene:

Funerary scene on the front of the coffin

Funerary scene on the front of the coffin

Harwa is shown as a mummy lying on his funeral bed. At his head is the goddess Nephthys and at his feet Isis, both of whom raise their hands to their foreheads in a grieving gesture. Below the funeral bed are the four Canopic jars, even though Harwa’s stomach, liver, lungs, and intestines are wrapped up in four bundles between his legs (see X-ray above). And above him flutters a human-headed bird, which represents Harwa’s ba—that aspect of the soul embodying one’s character and personality.

It was believed that this aspect of the soul needed to return to the mummified body at dusk, where it would remain safe through the hours of night. The funerary scene and hieroglyphic texts on the lower portion of the coffin come from Spell 89 of the Book of the Dead. Placing them here ensured that Harwa’s ba would indeed safely return to his mummy every evening before the sun set.

On Harwa’s chest is a beautiful depiction of the winged goddess Nut:

The goddess Nut, wings spread to protect Harwa

The goddess Nut, wings spread to protect Harwa

She spreads her wings as though to protect Harwa, and in each hand she clutches the ankh symbol (eternal life). Note the pair of eyes flanking the goddess’s head. These are the eyes of Horus and were typical on coffins from significantly earlier periods of pharaonic history, as a means to allow the soul within the coffin to see out. On Harwa’s coffin they’re an archaic feature typical of this later period, even though the face of the coffin has a set of human eyes.

Note also the disk atop Nut’s head. It contains tiny hieroglyphs which spell her name (nwt). Above the disk is the bottom edge of the floral collar painted onto the coffin. The fact that the disk with glyphs lies just below the collar instead of intersecting it, allows Egyptologists to date the coffin to around 625 BCE or later (Taylor 2003: 115). This is how specific coffin typology can be, due to the development of iconography down through time. To reinforce this date, there are 22 deities depicted laterally down the sides of Harwa’s legs, another feature of the time. This is why I personally would date Harwa to about 600 BCE and to Dynasty 26 instead of Dynasty 25.

Down the front of Harwa’s legs are seven vertical bands reading top to bottom, right to left. The farthest right band is specific to Harwa and his family line (while much of the rest of the lengthy inscription comes from the Book of the Dead, as noted above). I’ve reproduced the hieroglyphs in the rightmost register:

Harwa'sFamilyGlyphsThe inscription reads: “Doorkeeper in the Temple of Amun, Harwa, the justified; son (of) the doorkeeper in the Temple of Amun, Pakharukhonsu, the justified; (who is the) son of Harwa, the justified. His mother, lady of the house, Medi-Iun, the justified.”

In life, then, Harwa was a doorkeeper in the Temple of Amun, the largest and most prestigious temple in Egypt. His father, Pakharukhonsu, held the same title before him. Pakharukhonsu’s father (and Harwa’s grandfather) was also named Harwa, so perhaps it was a family name—although it was common to name one’s son after one’s father. And Harwa’s mother was named Medi-Iun.

The name Harwa appears to be Semitic in origin, with the root H-L-W. It’s attested since Akkadian times under the form elelu and probably means “Beautiful Because Sweet” (Teeter, Gaudard, & Tradritti 2013). Some linguists argue that most or all ancient Egyptian dialects lacked the sound “L,” which might explain why it is rendered the way it is in Egyptian inscriptions.

The Temple of Amun (modern Luxor) was an extremely powerful and wealthy institution. As with any large state temple it would’ve had an army of employees, and doorkeepers were of a lower rank (Erman 1894: 304). However, it’s important to understand that the position was more for the sake of prestige than for income, and in fact it’s altogether possible the family’s personal wealth and standing are what landed his father and then him in that position. Typically only the highest-class citizens were involved with the great temples. And it’s clear Harwa was very proud of this: his name and title are repeated many times over the surfaces of his coffin.

I should note that published materials also describe Harwa as the overseer of an agricultural estate owned by the Temple of Amun. Given that the great temples—and especially Amun’s—owned vast agricultural lands in the Nile Valley to make themselves self-sufficient, this is quite plausible. However, I have never been able to find this fact in the visible inscriptions, so until such time that I am able to see and translate it, I shall refrain from claiming that title for Harwa.

It’s only a pity that the coffin is so close to the back wall of the display case; otherwise, we could note whether there are inscriptions on the back, too. This was common for elaborate coffins of the Late Period. I’ve always wished the curators who designed the exhibit had stuck a large mirror behind the coffin.

Harwa’s coffin is a true masterpiece, fitting for an elite man in the Late Period of Egypt. Together with his incredibly preserved mummy, it’s clear Harwa was a wealthy and comfortable man. He is one of the greatest treasures of our Egyptian collection, and I’ve spent years discussing him with enthralled museum visitors. One might say Harwa is our rock star.

Thanks for reading. I welcome comments and questions.

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Adams, Judith E. and Chrissie W. Alsop. “Imaging Egyptian Mummies.” Egyptian Mummies and Modern Science. ed. Rosalie David. 2008.

Erman, Adolf. Life in Ancient Egypt. 1894.

Ikram, Salima and Aidan Dodson. The Mummy in Ancient Egypt. 1998.

Martin, Richard A. 1941/ Vol. 53, No. 4. “X-Raying a Mummy at the Field Museum of Natural History.” The Scientist Monthly.

Stenn, Frederick E:, James W. Milgram; Sandra L. Lee; Raymond J. Weigand; Arthur Veis. 1977. Vol 197, No. 4304. “Biochemical Identification of Homogentisic Acid Pigment in an Ochronotic Egyptian Mummy.” Science, New Series.

Taylor, John H. “Theban coffins from the Twenty-second to the Twenty-sixth Dynasty: dating and synthesis of development.” The Theban Necropolis: Past, Present and Future. ed. Nigel Strudwick and John H. Taylor. 2003.

On the translation of Harwa’s name: Personal correspondence with Emily Teeter and Francois Gaudard of the Oriental Institute, University of Chicago; personal correspondence with Francesco Tradritti, Field Director of the Harwa Mission, Università di Enna Unikore. 2013.