I thought I might switch gears and write about something a little different. For now I’ll put aside my battles against pseudo-archaeology and proffer something that might be practical to some folks—especially people with young kids.
I consider it an important duty as a museum docent to put a “human face” on Egyptian mummies. I meet and talk with a lot of people in our Egyptian galleries, from the very young to the very old, and realized a long time ago that many people really do not understand why the Egyptians mummified their dead and what mummies meant to them. Misconceptions abound. I try to clear them up. Am I always successful? Probably not, but the topic isn’t terribly difficult to grasp. I hope most people leave with a better understanding than when they arrived.
As it says in my blog’s “About Me” link, I live in Chicago and serve as a docent at the Field Museum of Natural History and the Oriental Institute at the University of Chicago. Both have large Egyptian exhibits but the Field in particular has a lot of mummies. More than most other museums, in fact. There are twenty human mummies in the public exhibit and twenty more in storage, deep within the mysterious and secretive bowels of the museum’s sub-basements. This does not include mummified Egyptian animals, a number of which are on display and more of which are in storage (I’m not sure of the count). Nor does it include South American mummies, mostly from ancient Peruvian cultures and numbering around fifty.
This is to say, if you function in any capacity at the Field Museum, you are always among quite a number of the ancient dead. This creeps out some people but not me. I spend a lot of time in our Egyptian galleries at the Field and have become quite fond of the mummies in there. They’re like old friends.
So, how best to understand these mummies when you visit a museum like the Field, where the anciently departed are on display? More so, for you parents out there, how do you introduce your kids to mummies in a meaningful and positive way? After all, you want them to leave the exhibit well informed and enlightened, not waking up in a pee-puddle that night and shrieking about mummies coming to get ’em. You might think I’m joking, but some adults have told me that after the first time they had visited the exhibit as little kids years back, they had nightmares for days. We chuckle over this, but the truth is, I don’t want any child to leave frightened.
I hope this article will help both kids and grown-ups to have a better understanding and appreciation of the situation.
Deal with reality
The first important thing when entering an Egyptian exhibit which contains mummies, is to deal with the exhibit realistically and with an open mind. I really do not like it when a parent is accompanying a child through the exhibit and has her hands covering the child’s eyes (this might sound odd to some of you readers, but in my years as a docent I have seen it many times). This is not productive. Nor is it helpful. Yes, it’s perfectly fine if you feel your child isn’t ready to deal with the topic of death or if you know your child is easily frightened by such things.
But if this is the case, do not visit the exhibit with the child. By ushering a kid through the hall while covering his eyes, you’re essentially telling him there’s something bad in there that they must not see. This only reinforces apprehension and anxiety. If you have an older child eager to see the exhibit and a younger child afraid of the exhibit, have one spouse accompany the older child though the exhibit while the other takes the younger child to a different exhibit in the museum.
Often you cannot know how a kid will deal with mummies. They may enter the place with little to no real experience with ancient human remains, beyond episodes of Scooby Doo, movies, and books written for young kids. Seeing the real thing for the first time can result in unpredictable encounters. I’ve met families whose kids were eager to see mummies, only to discover the mummies freak them out. Conversely, I’ve met families whose kids were very nervous about seeing mummies for the first time, only to discover that the experience greatly interests them.
If a child enters enthusiastically but quickly becomes upset and scared, quietly and gently usher him out. There’s nothing wrong with that. Mummies aren’t for everyone, but most museums will have any number of other exhibits that might be more to the kid’s liking.
A sense of humor is okay. I consider it essential to my educational kit as a docent. While it’s important to treat mummies with respect, approaching them with appropriate lightheartedness is all right. In fact, it might help a nervous child to ease up. I’ll return later to how I think mummies should be understood, but I’ve certainly used a sense of humor with adults and children alike.
Are they real?
This is probably the most common question I get in the Egyptian exhibit. I joke with people that it’s even more common than where the bathroom is, but in truth the bathroom is not even a close second. (I mention the bathroom question only as an opportunity to share what some of us ancient Egypt docents call it: the Temple of Relief.)
I get a kick out of how in awe some folks are by the fact that, yes, the mummies are real. Some people are so surprised by this fact that even after I emphasize that all of the mummies are authentic, they’ll point at different mummies and ask: “Is this one real? Is that one real, too?” Yes, they’re all real. I usually don’t mind this particular repetition because I enjoy how enthralled many people are by this fact.
Mind you, it’s usually adults who ask me this question, but naturally many kids ask it, too. Almost always I leave it to the parents to answer them, and I’ll take my cue from them. In most cases the parent will see me standing there and will ask me to answer the kids. Of course, I answer frankly with the correct answer. I don’t see any need to sugar-coat such a simple question.
In nearly all cases the parents appreciate this answer, and if anything the kids are even more enthralled by the truth, but on rare occasions I’ve met parents who don’t want their kids to hear it. Rather, they will insist to their children that the mummies are “statues.” I do not like this explanation. Not only is it dishonest but, again, it reinforces that real mummies must be frightening and should be avoided. No, they’re not statues. They were real people. I’m left thinking, If you think your kid is that afraid of the truth, why did you bring him in here? But I will not correct them. It’s not my place to do so, even if I feel compelled to do it.
I’ll accommodate visitors as much as I can. It’s part of my position, of course. I’ve met kids who are very hesitant to see mummies but are fascinated by nearly everything else in the exhibit. I remember an intelligent and articulate boy named Brandon, who was around nine years old. He was fascinated by amulets and wanted to see real examples. One of the mummies on display is a Late Period man named Harwa—the most popular mummy at the Field Museum. He’s in a standing position with a plate of glass before him, and it happens that the glass is arrayed with a display of amulets to show how they were positioned on the corpse, during the wrapping process:
Harwa, Late Period, late seventh century BCE, Dynasty 25 or early Dynasty 26, Field Museum
It also happens that Harwa’s head is unwrapped. This probably happened well over a hundred years ago, even before Harwa arrived at the Field Museum. Now, Brandon was one of those kids very nervous about mummies, but he wanted to see the amulets in front of Harwa. He bravely stepped up but shielded the area above his face with his hand. I lent a hand, too, just to make sure he couldn’t see Harwa’s mummified face. In that position, Brandon and I spent quite awhile together looking at the amulets, as he asked questions and absorbed our little teachable moment.
This worked out well for both of us. The point is, some accommodation might be necessary, and visitors of all ages tend to be very flexible. The important thing is to try to aid a nervous kid through the experience so that he walks away with a positive feeling.
There was also a father who brought his little boy into the exhibit. I do not recall the boy’s name, but he was younger than Brandon. The kid was positively beside himself with anxiety over the room full of mummies. He cried for a good ten minutes, but his dad would not relent. He wanted to guide his kid through the experience. Had it been me, I probably would’ve ushered the kid out of the exhibit to see something else, but I could see the dad’s desire to help his kid, so I assisted as best as I could. In the end we were successful and the boy’s tears dried up. He ultimately looked at many of the mummies and even asked a few questions about them, but for a while afterward I was afraid the kid would be one of those to go home and have nightmares for days to come.
Also on display is a fully unwrapped boy from the Late Period. He is absent a coffin or any other identifying artifact, so we have no way of determining what his name may have been:
Mummified boy, Late Period, probably dating to Dynasty 26, Field Museum
Past radiographic studies of the boy’s skeletal structure have established that he may have died at around ten years of age. People are fascinated by this mummified child, but I once had a good reminder about the importance of describing mummies with respect and tact. I was talking to a little girl and her mom and pointed to the boy’s foot, which evidences a cavus deformity:
Close-up of the same mummy’s feet; note the arrow indicating the deformity of the right foot
I explained to the little girl that we do not know for certain why the boy died so young, but the deformity of his right foot indicated some kind of disease he had suffered. The girl got a very concerned look on her face, and the mom must have seen the confused look I wore because she pulled down the top of her daughter’s shirt. The little girl had a large scar from cardiac surgery, due to a congenital condition. In this case I was glad I had not used any humor in my description of the mummified boy.
Then there was a group of young kids I met next to the same mummy. Most of them were boys, and they wanted to know how we knew the mummified child was a boy (the label copy identifies him as such). Not being a parent myself, and suffering from a stubborn sort of naiveté in such situations, I explained very frankly that the boy’s private parts were preserved. As with many males in pharaonic times, this boy had been positioned with his hands over his genitalia, so the entire group of kids with whom I was speaking dropped to their knees to see for themselves.
I was amused and embarrassed at the same time.
Speaking of label copy, if you’re visiting an Egyptian exhibit and are wondering about the authenticity of a mummy, read what it has to say about that mummy. I’ve heard of artificial mummies but have never seen one, myself. However, nearly all museums will be honest about whether something they’re displaying is authentic or a replica.
But at the Field Museum they’re real. Yes, all of them.
Why did they mummify?
Now there’s a good question. It seems odd to many people that the Egyptians would go through so much work just to preserve a dead body, but then again most of the religious beliefs of ancient Egypt are nothing like those of Judaism or Christianity or Islam or any other modern religion. In fact, although traces of ancient Egyptian religion are preserved in Judeo-Christianity, the ancient religion itself is long extinct.
So it can be tricky for many people to grasp the reason the Egyptians mummified their dead. To be sure, most of the Egyptian population wasn’t mummified. Most simply couldn’t afford it. Perhaps by the later dynasties, no more than around ten percent of the population was being mummified—the wealthiest ten percent, of course. Still, over the course of the long-lasting pharaonic civilization (in excess of 3,000 years), something on the order of 70 million people were mummified. That’s a hell of a lot of mummies. Clearly those who could afford it, took it very seriously.
Put yourself in the place of an ancient Egyptian. You’ve died, and your family has brought you to the embalmer’s workshop. Your soul, or ba, has left your body and cannot rejoin it until the proper funerary rituals have been performed and your mummy is properly placed within the burial chamber of your tomb. Once all of this is accomplished, your soul is safe to return. You see this depicted on many ancient Egyptian artifacts, from coffins to papyri. A good example is from the Book of the Dead of Ani, dating to Dynasty 19:
The ba of Ani rejoining his mummy, British Museum
The ba was usually depicted as a bird with a human head and often with little human arms. Now, the Egyptians believed in several different soul components with which all people were imbued, but the ba was the freest of all these components. It could travel to the land of the dead and back, and venture out into the world to be among us.
But at desk when the sun was setting, it was in peril. Nighttime was considered mysterious and dangerous, with the absence of Re and his life-giving sun. The ba was vulnerable at this time to demons and other nasty nightly creatures, so it had to find a safe place. This safe place was the mummy. Every night it was believed that the ba would return to the mummy, there to reside until the rebirth of Re at dawn. The mummy was the safest place for the ba to go. This is why the scene of the ba fluttering above the mummy is depicted on the bellies of many coffins in later dynasties. To do so was not an act of art but one of magic. Depicting the ba as such ensured that it would, in fact, return to that mummy every night. In other cases a ceramic or wooden ba figure was placed atop the chest of the mummy, inside its coffin.
So in one sense the mummy was an anchor for the ba, a safe place to return at night. But it served another purpose, too. In the Egyptian mind the afterlife was a place of paradise exactly mirroring the Egypt of the living. The land of the dead was not just a location for the dead to dwell but was physical at the same time. All the physical pleasures enjoyed in life could be enjoyed in death—eating, drinking, singing, dancing, hugging, kissing, and, yes, even sex. But to do this, a deceased person needed a physical form. The mummy enabled this. In ancient Egyptian the word for mummy was sah, which means “noble.” The mummy, in other words, was a noble, purified, eternal form (just like the everlasting mummified body of the king of the dead, the god Osiris). A physically preserved body in this plane of existence ensured that you would have a physical spirit in the afterlife.
Not so complicated, right? Nothing really like Judeo-Christianity, I agree, but to understand the beliefs and practices of an ancient civilization, it is often necessary to step outside the cultural box in which you were raised.
How did they mummify?
This is actually more complicated than it sounds. There wasn’t just one way to perform a mummification, and it took many centuries of experimentation before the Egyptians got it right. This is why most Egyptian mummies you see in museum exhibits date to later periods of pharaonic history. Most mummies from the earliest periods are poorly preserved and often in a skeletal state.
As I like to joke, the Egyptians couldn’t run out to a book store and buy Mummies for Dummies. As I said, it took a long time before the Egyptians were particularly good at mummifying bodies. The Greek writer Herodotus wrote that there were different levels of mummification according to what the family could afford, and aside from the plethora of errors he put in his The Histories (mid-5th century BCE), he seems to have gotten this right.
In essence, Egyptian mummification was a deliberate desiccation of the body. Internal organs were removed (see below) and the body was packed in a natural salt compound called natron. This process lasted anywhere from 35 to 40 days. The body was then washed and tightly bandaged in many layers of linen bandages and, in many case, full-body linen burial shrouds. Amulets might be placed on the body during the wrapping process. You’ll often hear that the wrapping process alone could take around 30 days, and in fact the Egyptians recorded a full “70 days” of mummification (40 for drying, 30 for wrapping), but this almost certainly reflected the mummification of royals and nobles. Very few people below that station would’ve undergone a month of wrapping—considerably less, in fact—but 35 to 40 days of drying seems to have been probably fairly standard in most good mummifications.
In other words, the Egyptians figured out how to turn the human body into beef jerky (another favorite joke of mine). And they got very good at it. The body was reduced to little more than skin and bones. It’s not that the Egyptians understood the bacterial processes of decay. They didn’t. But they didn’t need to. They could see how an untreated body would quickly putrefy in a desert environment. They were very familiar with the idea of salting meat to make it last—the Egyptians were domesticating cattle around 8,000 years ago, after all. Eventually they just applied the same idea to their burial practices.
What did they do with the guts…and other stuff?
Part of a high-status mummification (meaning the most expensive sort) required in most cases that several organs be removed. An embalmer sliced usually the left flank to create a wound the size of a fist, then reached in to cut out the stomach, liver, lungs, and intestines (I say usually because sometimes this wound has been found on the right side, and in other cases the organs were removed through the pelvic floor). The reason for doing this goes back to the explanation for why they mummified in the first place: the mummified body was something of a mirror image for the physical soul that would dwell forever in the land of the dead. A body needs its parts, so the stomach, liver, lungs, and intestines were often withdrawn to be dried out, as well. These were often stored in stone vessels which go by the modern term canopic jars:
Canopic jars dating to the Late Period, Field Museum
The heads on the jars represent four deities known as the Sons of Hours. The Egyptians stored the organs in such a regularized way that we can usually be fairly certain which organ went into which jar: the baboon god Hapi (from left in the above photo) held the lungs, the falcon god Qebehsenuef held the intestines, the human god Imseti held the liver, and the jackal god Duamutef held the stomach. The four jars were often stored in an elaborately decorated box known as the canopic chest.
Jars were not always used. In some cases the organs were wrapped in linen bundles fitted with plaster heads of the same gods. In the case of King Tut, his organs were stored in four beautiful gold coffinettes. And for reasons not clear, at the end of the New Kingdom (c. 1069 BCE) the jars were no longer used for storage. They continued to be made for centuries, if just to represent the four above-mentioned gods in the tomb, but following the New Kingdom the preserved organs were usually placed back inside the abdomen of the mummy or in bundles between its legs. The point was to have the organs with or near the body forever: complete in this physical world so that the physical spirit form in the afterlife would likewise be complete.
In an out-of-the-way spot in our exhibit at the Field Museum, we actually have all four organs on display. These viscera did not even usually survive till modern times, so I like that we have a full set. And I enjoy pointing them out to people. It’s funny to see their faces, adult and kid alike. They seem to be somewhat disgusted and fascinated at the same time. I always tell the kids: “Be sure to tell all your friends you saw real mummy guts!”
Mummified organs fitted with bronze Sons of Horus masks, Late Period, Field Museum
What about other body parts? The kidneys do not seem to have been of importance in pharaonic times, and were usually left in place. So was the heart, but for a different reason. The heart was the most important part of the body—physically, emotionally, and spiritually. The Egyptians more or less viewed it as the brain. People tend to chuckle when I say this, but try to think about it from the perspective of a pre-scientific society. When you’re scared or in love or are in some other way emotionally charged, your heart responds by beating faster. It makes perfect sense. The Egyptians believed the heart was the seat of emotion and intellect, and would circulate thoughts and feelings and life energy through the body. As the most important part of the body, it needed to be left in place inside the body.
Another reason for this was the hall of judgement the ba had to encounter on its journey to the afterlife, following the death of the body. The ba had to surrender its heart to the god Anubis for weighing on the scales. This is often seen in Books of the Dead:
From the Book of the Dead of Khonsurenpe, Dynasty 19 or 20, Field Museum
The heart is weighed opposite a feather, representing the concept of maat or cosmic order, balance, and justice. Only the heart of a righteous person will weigh the same as the feather. Should the heart outweigh the feather, the deceased is judged to be wicked and unworthy and his heart is promptly devoured by the monstrous creature Ammit (note this creature reclining below the scales in the above image); the soul of the deceased would be destroyed along with his heart. Naturally this never happens in the Book of the Dead. All who owned such a papyrus were judged to be righteous and worthy, of course. Ammit never gets a snack.
The point is, the heart needed to be left in place so that it would be present, in spirit form, in the hall of judgement.
The Egyptians were big on ideals. They were rather obsessed with ideals, but ideals do not always reflect reality. On occasion a mummy studied through CT-scan images reveals that no heart was left in the chest. It’s difficult to understand why this happened, but it was probably due to nothing more than sloppy work. Again, ideals do not always reflect reality.
So if the Egyptians didn’t really understand the brain, what did they do with it? I’m always a bit surprised (and pleased) by how many kids know this. The brain was usually extracted through the nose via a long rod with a hook on the end. The hook was used to break apart the brain matter, so that it flowed out the nostril in chunks. This has been confirmed in tests on human cadavers, including the famous experiment conducted by Bob Brier in the 1990s:
X-ray film of excerabration (removal of the brain), University of Maryland’s School of Medicine
I often hear people tell their kids or friends that the Egyptians sucked the brains out. No, that’s not true…thank God. And I almost always hear people say that the ruined brain matter was thrown away. In fact, I believe I’ve heard this on one or more ancient Egypt specials on the History Channel. This also is not true. While no attempt was made to preserve the brain, it wasn’t tossed out like spoiled meat. Together with all of the other waste products from mummification—this was a messy business, after all—the brain was bundled up and buried in a pit or cache nearby the tomb.
Many people, almost always kids, ask me if they took out the mummy’s eyes. No, they didn’t. Naturally the eyes just dried out in the desiccation process during mummification, so usually nothing is left of them. On occasion, however, some eye tissue does remain. In earlier times of mummification nothing special was done with the eyes or their orbits. Many of these mummies just have vacant holes where the eyes used to be. But in later periods the empty orbits were often stuffed with wads of linen or other materials, and the eyelids glued shut. In essence the mummified person looks almost like he or she is sleeping. Our Field Museum mummy Harwa is a good example of this. I introduced you to him earlier but here’s a closer shot of his profile:
Profile of the mummy Harwa
A very serene and peaceful-looking old man.
People also ask about the tongue. They didn’t usually do anything with that, either. Remember, however, that the afterlife was believed to be an eternal physical existence, so it was rather important to have a tongue so one could speak. As a backup, in case the tongue didn’t survive the mummification process or the millennia following it, they often placed an amulet in the shape of a tongue onto the tongue itself. If I might rerutn to the heart for a moment, the same concern existed for it, too. Only more so. Should the heart not survive, the soul would die. Therefore, heart amulets were commonly placed on mummies.
There’s another part of the body about which people inquire. It involves a certain part of the male anatomy. I’ve been asked this question quite a few times over the years, and it always comes from younger boys (nothing surprising there). Sometimes boys really do want to know what the embalmers did with a male mummy’s penis or scrotum. This is important business to a young boy, of course. My usual answer is, nothing. As a docent colleague of mine puts it, “Packed and ready to go.” It’s a legitimate question and it deserves a frank and honest answer. (By the way, moms are usually a little embarrassed by this question, but I find that dads often want to know the answer, too.)
But “nothing” is not a complete answer, even if I tend to leave it at that in the exhibit. On the occasional mummy, the penis is found affixed to a thigh or tied against a rod, to make it appear erect. Remember the physical nature of the afterlife—the erect penis represents male fertility and virility.
What do mummies feel like / smell like?
This is a question I’ve fielded many times. It’s almost always kids who are curious to know. Some years ago one of the museum scientists from the Anthropology Department brought out an assortment of mummified Egyptian animals that are not usually displayed. This was quite a treat and I spent awhile talking with him and examining the specimens. The animals were laid out on several tables and were accessible for close inspection by anyone passing by. While we were not allowed to touch them, of course, I was curious about what they might smell like, so I didn’t hold back. I bent down and carefully smelled most of them. There was very little odor at all, aside from a hint of mustiness from a couple of them.
I’ve never smelled a human mummy but a docent colleague with whom I work recently had the opportunity to volunteer his assistance in the CT scanning of numerous animal mummies and one human mummy. This gave him the highly enviable chance to enter Human Storage, where docents rarely are allowed to go. He reported that the entire room had a rather noticeable resinous scent. Most of the woman in attendance found it rather disconcerting but my friend thought it quite pleasant.
The resinous scent is understandable. Many mummies in ancient embalmers workshops were coated with thick layers of heated pine resin prior to wrapping, and then the wrappings themselves were often thickly coated with the same. This was especially true with mummies dating to later periods. In other cases quite a lot of incenses were used, too. Because of this mummies from later periods might not only smell resinous but sweet, too. It’s my understanding mummies from earlier periods do not have much of a scent at all, like I experienced with the animal mummies.
The same is not true if mummies are subjected to poor environmental conditions. There are stories from Victorian England of people bringing mummies home to their manors, only to have them spoil in the damp conditions of Great Britain. This is why mummies in modern museums are kept inside specially controlled display cases with the temperature and humidity carefully maintained and monitored. The same is true for the Human Storage area at the Field Museum. Mummies might look like they need moisturizer but there’s nothing a mummy hates more than dampness. If a mummy is subjected to excess humidity, there is a good chance it will quickly grow moldy, and by that point conservators might not be able to save it.
As for how they feel, I’ve never personally felt one. In most cases when scientists are working with mummies, they avoid touching them with their bare hands. Latex gloves are worn. This is because our skin contains oils and acids that can easily damage ancient human remains. More or less, however, mummies are described as feeling like very old leather. I like to describe the texture as beef jerky.
Why show mummies?
Sometimes people ask why we show mummies at all. These tend to be folks of a more sensitive nature. Some people plainly find it offensive, while in other cases it’s my understanding that people practicing certain religions or sects within religions are not allowed to view dead bodies. I can only hope that these folks don’t wander into any large Egyptian exhibit.
Some museums have actually pulled Egyptian mummies from their exhibits so as not to put dead bodies on display. This strikes me as an over-reaction and an unnecessary practice, but it’s been known to happen. Occasionally people find the display of human remains disrespectful, and while I understand their reasoning, I disagree. It’s how the human remains are displayed that’s important. It must be done not only with respect but with relevance to the culture from which the bodies came.
The Field Museum used to have a number of shrunken heads on display. This was before my time at the museum, but every now and then someone will ask me where they can find the shrunken heads. They cannot. The heads were taken off display years ago because, I’ve been told, they were not displayed in any relevant cultural context.
Our Egyptian mummies are displayed in a tactful, respectful, and culturally relevant manner. This is the case with most museums, in my opinion. Still, answering why the mummies are displayed is not always an easy or simple thing to do. If the person asking the question is dead-set on finding fault, nothing I or anyone says will be satisfactory. In most cases, however, people who ask this question just want to have a better understanding of the situation.
Mummification was an integral aspect of ancient Egyptian tradition and religion for more than 3,000 years. When one thinks of ancient Egypt, the two most common images to appear are pyramids and…mummies. The ability to view authentic mummies is an important part of the overall experience, and enables museum people such as I to provide a better and more tangible learning experience. Not to mention more memorable. Without the study of mummies we would have a poor understanding of who the Egyptians were (lifespans, diseases, diets, average height, et cetera). In other words, mummies are a powerful educational tool. Certainly the ancient people whose mummies have ended up in museum exhibits could not have fathomed such a thing happening, but their very remains have been incredibly important to us. They will become only more important as our sciences and research methods become more sophisticated.
Were they bad/good?
Many very young children have asked this question. It’s also one that’s difficult to answer because, quite frankly, we rarely have any idea what a particular ancient Egyptian man or woman was like in life. Due to movies and cartoons and other modern media many little kids have formed an opinion that mummies must be bad, so I suppose this is the origin of the question.
In nearly all cases the Egyptians strived to leave us with only good impressions of themselves. They were the ultimate spin doctors. On their own inscribed monuments many ancient Egyptians stressed how they clothed the naked and fed the hungry—this might sound very Old Testament but it was an Egyptian notion centuries before the Old Testament first existed. Orphans were protected and widows were cared for. Wives were pampered, children were doted on, and the gods were properly venerated.
No one wants to be remembered in a negative light, and the Egyptians were careful to emphasize their goodness. We certainly know about criminals and corrupt officials and heretical kings, but these were the exception.
So obviously with this sort of rigid propaganda, we can’t really know about the day-to-day, real-life personalities of most ancient Egyptians. That’s a simple fact. Still, the ancient Egyptians were human, just like us. Even a curmudgeon such as I must admit that most people are good and decent. Why would the Egyptians have been any different? There must have been a great many wonderful people in their society, as well as their share of bad apples.
At the end of the day, what I try to stress with people I meet in our exhibit, is that the mummies they’re seeing were real people. It may have been thousands of years ago, but they lived and breathed, held jobs and paid taxes, experienced triumphs and failures, knew joys and sorrows. These mummies in the display cases were moms and dads, brothers and sisters, sons and daughters. They were loved and valued family members. They lived their lives in all their fullness, and eventually died—some at old ages, some at very young ages.
Mummies are people too. We should always try to remember that. They deserve their share of respect and attention. And after all, they came from one of the greatest civilizations ever to have existed.