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Conservation of the mummy from mummy «Nofret»

Conservation of the mummy from mummy «Nofret»

In 1889, King Oscar II received another gift: a mummy coffin that was over 2000 years old, containing a mummy with its accompanying cartonnage. The king offered the coffin with its contents to the Museum of Ethnography at the Royal Fredrik’s University, Christiania, with the explicit wish that both the mummy and the coffin be investigated. During an unusual ceremony at the university with scientists of both medicine and history present, the mummy was opened, the bandages cut, and the body revealed from throat to knees.

Loose bandages along the side of the mummy. During conservation, these bandages were attached to the mummy with kozo paper and a paste of rice starch. Photo: Anne Håbu

The medical professors examined the body, and samples were taken of muscle and bone tissue. The fabric that was used in the bandaging, the layer of asphalt encasing the mummy, and the pigments on the mummy coffin were also thoroughly studied. The report was presented in 1890 with the King present. Afterward, the mummy was put back in its coffin, along with all of the loose textile fragments and pieces of cartonnage, and the coffin lid was put back in place.

Over a hundred years later, in August 2002, the coffin was taken out of storage and delivered to the conservation lab in the Historical Museum. The mummy was to be prepared for the upcoming exhibit in the Historical Museum in spring of 2003. It also had to be secured in order to withstand being transported for an
x-ray examination and CT-scan.

To reattach the shroud alongside the mummy’s thighs, a holster was sewn from very thin silk. The excess silk was cut off, and the seam moved to the underside of the body. Photo: Anne Håbu

As a first step in the process, all the pieces from the cartonnage were sorted and set aside for subsequent conservation. Afterward, several boxes were filled with textiles from the bandages – from tiny, partly pulverized fragments, up to a piece of shroud measuring about 30x50 cm. The mummy was carefully lifted out of the coffin and placed on a specially made, padded board with carrying handles. The padded board was placed on a trolley to minimize risk while it was being moved.

Before the conservation process could begin, the mummy was subjected to a thorough visual examination. It appeared that the embalmed body, consisting of bone and muscle tissue, was very well preserved. No treatment was necessary other than dusting the mummy’s surface with the help of a soft brush and a small, hand-held vacuum cleaner.

The textiles used to wrap the mummy were in varying degrees of preservation. From the knees and up along the thighs, large pieces of a vertical shroud were in very good condition, but the shroud could not be left hanging unattached. Along the side of the mummy, where the bandages were cut, several layers of bandages were falling off. (Fig. 42) When the mummy was opened in 1889, several layers of bandages around the throat and chest were also cut through. The surfaces where the incisions were made on the textiles were very brittle and disintegrated when touched.

The mummy during conservation with a cover of semi-hard foam rubber over the open abdominal cavity. Photo: Anne Håbu

The loose bandages were rewound and attached with patches of Japanese kozo paper glued with rice starch paste, which is a technique usually used in paper conservation. The disintegrating surfaces of the bandages where the incisions had been made were reinforced with a thin solution of rice starch paste that was brushed on. The large pieces of cloth along the thighs were laid alongside the body and attached using a layer of very thin silk that was sewn into a kind of holster from the knees to the thighs. (Fig. 43)

The original bandages covering the head and the feet up to the knees had been covered by a layer of natural asphalt, which had
remained untouched. However, some pieces of this bandaging were beginning to loosen, and were thus refastened with rice starch paste. When this was finished, a cover was made from semi-hard foam rubber that was placed over the opening of the abdominal cavity (Fig. 44). This cover not only restored the mummy to its original shape, but also functioned as a support for the largest part of the shroud.

Two large pieces of bandage covered with asphalt were placed on top of the shroud over the leg area. A thin, fine fabric originally dyed red was fixed to the asphalt layer that enclosed and sealed the mummy. Both the shroud and the asphalt layer had previously been repaired in order to affix loose fragments and prevent additional tearing during the handling .

A woman, 40–55 years old

A cross-section of the skull reveals how the brain was removed through the left nostril, and that liquid resin was poured in as a part of the embalming process. Photo: Bjørn Høgåsen, Sentrum X-Ray Institute, Oslo

As a part of the examination, an x-ray and a computerized axial tomography scan (CT scan) were taken of the mummy. These pictures revealed much about the mummy, including the state of her health when she was alive and details about the embalming technique used. The pictures showed a woman who was between 40 and 55 years of age when she died. There were no signs of change in the skeleton resulting from malnutrition when she was growing up, nor did the body show signs of wear other than those common for her age. She also had many well-preserved teeth. On the basis of this information, it is thought that she came from a higher stratum of society. This is also supported by the advanced embalming technique that was used. The brain was re-
moved, the fingers and toes were carefully and individually wrapped, and a large amount of resin was used. All of this must have been expensive.

A cross-section of the chest shows the heart to the right, in between cloth pillows that were used as padding. Photo: Bjørn Høgåsen, Sentrum X-Ray Institute, Oslo

The x-rays show a skeleton that is so incredibly well preserved that it could have been a picture of a modern person. A cross-section of the skull shows that the brain was removed and that an incision was made through the skull via the left nostril. The cranial cavity was then filled with resin. Resin not only acted as a preservative, but also sanctified the mummy. (Fig. 45) The internal organs were removed during the embalming process, with the exception of the heart, which can be seen intact in the chest. (Fig. 46). The Egyptians regarded the heart as the seat of intellect and emotion, and it was therefore left in the body.

Ethical concerns

The regulations of the International Council of Museums (ICOM) point out that when
sensitive material, such as human remains, is exhibited, it must be done with the tact and respect for human dignity that is the right of people from all cultures.

When the mummy was exhibited for the first time since it was opened in 1890, it showed signs of having been placed back in the coffin rather haphazardly. The mummy also appeared to have been subject to general neglect. One part of the conservation process was therefore to restore the dignity that the dead woman brought with her to the grave. Today the mummy is clean and well cared for, with loose cloth fragments reattached and the exposed abdom-inal cavity covered by its swaddling.

An aura of peace surrounds her as she now rests in the coffin, with her head covered and arms crossed over her chest. Hopefully, this exhibit will fill the viewer with both respect and wonder, and at the same time impart a feeling of the dignity and beauty that now characterizes this woman from Ancient Egypt.

Published Jan. 29, 2021 9:23 AM - Last modified Jan. 29, 2021 11:45 AM