Unraveling Mummy Mysteries at Tulane

Scholars investigate Egyptian artifacts from university collection

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Tulane researchers John Verano (left) and Melinda Nelson-Hurst (center) with graduate student Daniel Sullivan (right) examine one of the coffins from Tulane University’s Egyptian collection. Photo: Rene Guitart, courtesy of the Middle American Research Institute, Tulane University.

Many archaeologists set off each year to distant, often exotic-seeming destinations to investigate the remains of ancient cultures. Sometimes, though, the mysteries of ancient cultures from across the globe can be unveiled right here at home. Or, as in the case of Tulane University scholars Melinda Nelson-Hurst and John Verano, right in their own university’s collection.

For the last two years, Nelson-Hurst and Verano have been investigating mummies and other Egyptian artifacts that have been part of Tulane’s collection for over 160 years. The artifacts now reside at the Middle American Research Institute at Tulane.*

In the mid-1800s, George Gliddon, then a former U.S. vice-consul to Egypt, traveled across the United States presenting lectures on ancient Egypt and staging public unwrappings of mummies in select cities, including New Orleans. Gliddon’s collection of Egyptian artifacts were donated to the University of Louisiana (now Tulane University) in 1852. Included in Gliddon’s collection were two mummies (one male, one female), two intact coffins, two cartonnage cases, a papyrus Book of the Dead and some linen pieces.

For the first time, an Egyptologist has been involved with a thorough study of the artifacts from Gliddon’s collection at Tulane. Egyptologist Nelson-Hurst and physical anthropologist Verano have not only examined the artifacts themselves, but have also endeavored to reconstruct the artifacts’ excavation, acquisition and exhibition history.
 


 
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Cartonnage of Djed-Thoth-iuf-ankh, whose mummy also resides at Tulane. Photo: Rene Guitart, courtesy of the Middle American Research Institute, Tulane University.

Nelson-Hurst and Verano were able to reunite a mummy by the name of Djed-Thoth-iuf-ankh with his coffin, cartonnage case (innermost coffin case made of linen and stucco—see image left) and Book of the Dead (funerary text). The mummy, whom Gliddon had unwrapped in Boston in 1850, was a man from Thebes who died in his 50s. Djed-Thoth-iuf-ankh’s coffin and Book of the Dead indicate he was a priest and overseer of craftsmen in the Temple of Amun some time during the middle of the ninth century B.C.E.

The other coffin and cartonnage case in Tulane’s collection, which are likely contemporaneous to Djed-Thoth-iuf-ankh’s burial assemblage, belonged to a female named Djed-Mut-ius-ankh. However, the researchers determined that this burial assemblage belonged not to the mummy at Tulane but to a mummy whose skull is now in the Morton Collection at the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology. The Philadelphia mummy had been unwrapped by Gliddon in 1851, after which point most of the remains save for the skull was not able to be preserved.

Nelson-Hurst and Verano, whose publication of their study is forthcoming, presented their findings at the First Vatican Coffin Conference in Italy last summer. As part of their research plan, the scholars will be making recommendations for the conservation and eventual exhibition of the artifacts at Tulane.

“Such an exhibition would include both the ancient and modern histories of Djed-Thoth-iuf-ankh and the others who accompanied him to America, as well as discussion of the methods we use today to enable us to reconstruct part of the context that was lost over 160 years ago,” said Nelson-Hurst in a paper delivered at the American Historical Association annual meeting in January. “By doing so, we aim to start replacing the macabre and sensational with a fuller understanding of the lives and cultures of both ancient Egyptians and modern Americans for a broad audience.”

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* Special thanks to Dr. Melinda Nelson-Hurst for providing Bible History Daily with her coauthored pre-publication report.
 

 
Read “Examining the Lives of Ancient Egyptian Women” by Melinda Nelson-Hurst in Bible History Daily.
 

 

Related Content in Bible History Daily:

Epilepsy, Tutankhamun and Monotheism

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Posted in The Ancient Near Eastern World.

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