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Peru and Egypt

Mummies: New Secrets from the Tombs uncovers secrets from The Field Museum's extraordinary collection of ancient Egyptian and Peruvian mummies. The exhibition opens a new window into the environments, daily lives, beliefs, and rituals of societies from Pre-Dynastic Egypt to Pre-Inca Peru, revealing how these ancient peoples ingeniously prepared their loved ones for their journeys into the afterlife.

This exhibition premiered at NHM during the Fall of 2015.



Fragment of a sarcophagus (stone coffin) of Middle Ptolemaic Egypt (225 – 175BC).
Credit: © 2015 The Field Museum, A115213d_017A, photographer John Weinstein

This limestone bust on display is a fragment of a larger type of coffin, referred to as a sarcophagus, designed to hold a wooden coffin and mummy. The entire limestone sarcophagus would have weighed several thousand pounds.

Most people couldn't afford one, but wealthy Egyptians sometimes paid for the added security. Grave robbing was a problem in ancient Egypt and a limestone coffin would've been difficult to open or damage. These and the two others in the exhibition were already broken when they were purchased by The Field Museum and may have been damaged centuries ago by particularly determined thieves.




A double-spouted jar with the face of a jaguar, made in the Paracas culture (800– 100 BC). Fine ceramics were often buried with the mummified dead. © 2015 The Field Museum, A115203d_002A, photograph by John Weinstein.

One of the main sections of the exhibition spotlights Peru. In these galleries, visitors will discover sharp stones that look like arrowheads, objects that reveal a surprising fact — Peruvians were the world’s first practitioners of mummification, thousands of years before the Egyptians. They wielded de-fleshing tools 7,000 years ago, 2,000 before the Egyptians adopted their burial practices. And visitors will see evidence of that around them — ancient Peruvian mummy bundles made visible by CT scans and X-rays.

One mummy bundle contains a person in a compactly crouched position, showing how surprisingly simple it is to fit a body inside. Nearby, a CT-scanned bundle movingly reveals a woman and her baby who probably both died in childbirth. An interactive touch-table allows visitors to virtually “unpack” Peruvian mummies, and find out the poignant clues of the lives of individual persons, and the surprising objects that were wrapped and buried with them. The objects on display in the exhibition flesh out the everyday worlds of ancient Peruvians, too. Tools buried in tombs offer insight into different professions in ancient times, such as weaver, fishermen, and herder.

A vivid, life-size replica of a Chancay culture tomb will show how several family members would often be buried together, wrapped in colorful cloth bundles, and surrounded by guardian figurines and pots of food and corn beer. Families would often enter tombs to replenish these offerings to their relatives. An animated video also shows that mummies were sometimes hoisted out of tombs to be carried on litters to festivals. That practice was in contrast to Egyptians, who tried to seal the sarcophagus in tombs forever, sometimes filling the entire burial chamber with sand to make it inaccessible to thieves.

These discoveries are just a sliver of the wonders soon to be unveiled in Mummies: New Secrets from the Tombs.