18 Mummies From Peru and Egypt Come to the American Museum of Natural History
Opening March 20, "Mummies" lets visitors peer inside remains thousands of years old—all without disturbing or unwrapping them.
The oldest mummies in the world are found in Peru, dating back more than 7000 years; thousands of years later, the Egyptians began preserving their dead, too. Remains spanning millennia from both cultures will soon be on display in the traveling exhibit "Mummies," now in its first time on the East Coast. Left largely undisturbed in the collection of Chicago's Field Museum for more than a century, some of the mummies last made a public appearance at the Chicago world's fair in 1893, a.k.a. the World Columbian Exposition. People brought anthropological and natural history specimens from all over the world, and much of the assembled specimens became a core part of the Field Museum's collection.
Some were acquired in what was, at least at the time, considered legitimate archaeological investigation: For example, more than 100 pit tombs were excavated from northern Peru in the late 1800s by George Dorsey, a curator at the Field Museum, and some finds from those digs are in "Mummies." The Egyptian mummies generally don't have an origin more specific than "Egypt"—what's known as the provenance (or provenience). In a statement, the Field Museum explained why to mental_floss*:
There were no Egyptian mummies in the World's Fair (or at least, none that ended up in the Field Museum's collections). Most of the Egyptian mummies and coffins in the exhibit were acquired by the museum by purchase in an expedition in 1894 (the year after the World Columbian Exposition). There is also one Egyptian mummy in the show (111517, Minirdis) which The Field Museum received by gift from the Chicago History Museum in 1925 when the CHM divested itself of if its European, Indian, and Middle Eastern archaeological collections.
On provenience: since we did not excavate the material ourselves, we do not have reliable provenience for most of it, but the majority of the Egyptian mummies in the show come from the Akhmin cemetery.
That's one of the reasons why revealing what's inside these ancient remains without destroying them in the process—as so many researchers (and party-goers) did in the past—is so important. Thanks to advances in imaging, scientists in recent years have been able to look within the coffins, wraps, and remains using CT scans and other tools, all while leaving the mummies intact. That's what you'll see in "Mummies."
Mental_floss got an advanced look at these ancient peoples in the exhibit, which opens on Monday and runs through January 7, 2018. Note that out of respect for the remains, we were not allowed to photograph any of the mummies, nor were any images of the mummy bundles found in Peru distributed by AMNH to the press. Some of those are the remains of young children. You'll have to visit to see them for yourself—and to appreciate the love and care that went into their preservation.
*Editor's note: This post has been updated with a statement from the Field Museum.