A New Exhibition at the Budapest Museum of Fine Arts

Hundreds of mummies were bought in markets in Egypt in the late 19th century, and transported to North America and various European countries, including Hungary. That was easy in those days. Egypt seemed to be overflowing with mummies, and there was a big demand – from museums, and collectors. Earlier, in the 16th and 17th centuries, English landscape painters, among whom the so called “mummy brown” was a favourite, also created a certain demand. When you removed the bandages of mummified bodies, at least a thousand years old, the bodies turned quickly to dust. That dust was also highly prized in Europe from the Middle Ages onwards, because of its alleged healing properties.

A new exhibition opened at the Museum of Fine Arts in Budapest in June 2010, and closes in October. One of the mummies the art dealer István Delhaes brought back from Egypt is on display – part of a new, multidisciplinary “Budapest Mummy Project” which allows both visitors to the museum, and virtual visitors with an iPad or other tablet device, to actually “get inside” mummies for the first time. I interviewed Hungarian Egyptologist Máté Petrik, and multimedia developer András Nyírõ, as we walked around the exhibition, and studied the iPad application, which presents the scientific results of the research on the mummy of Hortesnakht.

NT: We’re standing in front of a kind of screen display, where we can see a kind of x-ray of the bodies of the mummies, but we can also see the outer casing at the same time, and the shape of the faces even, and the bodies.

MP: The main goal of the Budapest Mummy Project was to look inside the ancient Egyptian mummies of the Museum of Fine Arts to find out what kind of inner details and secrets they hide. Moreover, we wanted to present these research results – skeletons, embalming materials, and mummification techniques to museum visitors.

NT: And this was not possible before?

MP: It has been possible up to a point since the 1970s, since the introduction of x-ray computed tomography (CT) scans, with the help of which we can find and exactly map the inner details of the mummies. The 3D models of the mummies, produced from the images of this medical imaging technology are highly important for us as scientific researchers in studying the skeleton, the mummification techniques or the ornaments within the bodies, but also as museologists, in displaying these results for the visitors in a highly spectacular and interesting form. I would stress that modern mummy research projects like ours use non-invasive methods, which, unlike earlier research techniques of the 19th and early 20th century, do not damage the mummified bodies. So the spectrum of the scientific methods which can be used in mummy research is well-known, but to choose the relevant method for each mummy is always a difficult task and the methods are always different from mummy to mummy. Using CT scanning and chemical analysis in a modern mummy research program is not a revolutionary approach at all, but every time the results add something to our knowledge, which can then be placed into a wider context and may be compared with what we knew about the mummies beforehand. And here we can see the CT images of the mummy of Hortesnakht…

NT: This is on a screen at the side, and it’s amazing, it looks at first glance like an x-ray, but a very detailed x-ray.

MP: CT is actually a large series of two-dimensional x-ray images taken around a single axis of rotation and then put together by computers, so the studied object can be modelled in a 3-dimensional way. On the x-ray images of the mummy of Hortesnakht a specific mummification technique can be observed. Before the 3rd century BC, the internal organs were regularly removed from the body, embalmed and placed in so-called canopic jars, protected by four deities, the four sons of Horus. The practice changed, and embalmed viscera were put back into the cavity in the form of longish packages, as in this case.

NT: Those are the little packages, are they? Those long white packages, are they inside the stomach?

MP: Yes. So there are altogether four packages, one larger in the right side, two smaller in left side of the body cavity and the smallest within the pelvis. It is interesting that the number of the packages follows the number of the canopic jars, the containers used formerly for keeping the viscera, which refers to a similar ideological background.

NT: The four mummies you have studied in your project were not famous figures, were they? What do we actually know about them?

MP: That was a very important question which we set out to answer with this research programme. Because until now we only knew the names of the two female mummies. One of them was called Hortesnakht, which means “Horus is her power”. This could be read on the hieroglyphic inscription on her coffin. The other one is called Rer, also according to the hieroglyphic inscription on her coffin. But we didn’t know anything before about the cultural, the temporal context of these mummies. Now, after the first phase of the project, with the results of our scientific investigation, we can not only define more exactly the place, but also the physical conditions of these four mummified remains. Hortesnakht lived at the end of the 3rd century BC, in the middle Egyptian city of Akhmim, was around 20 years old when she died and had very characteristic protruding teeth.

NT: What was special enough about them, for them to be mummified in the first place?

MP: It actually depended rather on the money. According to Herodotus, we know there were four types of mummification, depending on the price. So it depended on the place somebody held in the social hierarchy, and his financial background, so to say. If we study the mummification of Hortesnakht, we can say that this is very high quality mummification, and also her coffin is of very good quality, the shaping is very fine, as are the iconography, the painted decorations.

NT: And it turns out she was a singer?

MP: Actually we couldn’t be completely sure. A certain Hortesnakht is mentioned on a stele from Cairo bearing the title “singer of Min from Akhmim”. So there are sources to support this hypothesis, but we just think it is very likely.

NT: So this is the wooden coffin – and the lady herself. And inside it the mummy. It’s dark brown, a body clearly wrapped in bandages, with breast plates and plates down over the feet… and over the legs…

MP: The name of these pieces is cartonnage ornaments, which are separate pieces made of linen or papyrus and plaster. They were painted with the same iconography as the coffins. And after that they were fastened with textile strips on the body. These were also very important in the nether world for Hortesnakht. So for example we can see different types of protective deities on the casing, all important protectors of the mummy in the nether world. Why is it so dark brown or black? We used chemical analysis to examine this black resinous material, and were able to ascertain that it was made of natural resin, used to impregnate the outer bandages. This was very important for anti-bacterial reasons. And this is also very typical for 3rd century BC Akhmim mummifications. We know very good parallels, for example in the figure of Nesmin and other mummies from British museums.

Another feature which is very important in the scientific study of Hortesnakht is the facial reconstruction.

Everything was modelled with the help of the CT images of Hortesnakht’s skull. So first we used the CT images of the skull, after that the researchers could rebuild the skull, so we actually rebuilt a 3-D model, which was then printed out, to get the exact copy of the skull. And after that, Ágnes Kustár, an anthropologist, and a specialist for facial reconstruction, rebuilt it layer by layer. So now you can look at the face of a person who lived more than 2,000 years ago, which is a rather special way to meet ancient Egypt.

NT: Looking at her, here in front of us, she’s obviously a young woman, with a bald head, no hair, but with rather fine facial features, very brown eyes and slightly prominent upper lip…

MP: Yes, she has very protruding upper teeth, which was very scary for the first time for me. We thought, oh my God, what kind of face will we have after the facial reconstruction? But I think that she’s rather nice and she has a very characteristic face, and that is why we are very happy to see her…

An important part of the exhibition is a 3-D film in an adjoining room, which tells the story of Hortesnakht and the other three mummies, and also of the way different technologies, not least the latest Sharp 3-D projector, have been combined to make the results of all the scientific research accessible to the public. Upstairs in the museum, András Nyírõ showed me how the project has been turned into an iPad application, to make it equally accessible for virtual visitors to the exhibition, anywhere in the world.

ANy: Everybody is interested in mummies, so this is a kind of entertainment, but with a very serious, scientific background, presented in a very easy, very accessible way. We have been working on the iPad project with Egyptologists like Máté Petrik. This is a very interesting project, because we are working with 2,000 year-old bodies, using a brave new technology.

NT: So here it is on the iPad.

ANy: Here you can see a presentation of the whole project. First you have the introduction, the research and the reconstruction of the bodies. You can see short videos, and the whole mood of this picture is a little bit horrific… and a little bit of Hollywood, mixed together with science.

NT: Simply because you are actually opening up the coffins and letting anyone with an iPad inside?

ANy: Exactly. We have three buttons at the bottom of the application: coffin – skeleton – and body. So we have three layers. First you can study the coffin itself, you can see all the details, touch the coffin and get more information about what you can see…

NT: It’s actually very beautifully painted with very interesting iconography of ancient Egypt, with information of course about the body inside.

ANy: And then you can get – and maybe this is the most interesting piece of our iPad application – the full-size body in your hand, and go through in details on the picture. And basically you can go back, you can see the skeleton as well in detail, and the body. Normally if you’re in a museum, everywhere it’s written “don’t touch” the objects. Here, you have to touch the objects. That’s the difference, and that’s why I think that our iPad mummy application is interesting.

I would also add to this an ethical question. Here we have someone who died more than 2,000 years ago. We are talking about her, about the mummies, as if they were objects, but these were in fact once living bodies. So where are the frontiers, the limits? Would you like it if your body would be touched after 2,000 years, on an iPad application? Here I think that we always have to find the right balance, and I think that in this case we have. Of course everyone has to decide for themselves where the borders between what is acceptable and what is not, ought to lie. It’s a question of getting some information, but not going too close to those details that have to be hidden.

NT: So for you the boundaries are either technical barriers, or ethical, in which case people will set them for themselves?

ANy: Of course there are some places where you have to stop. And to respect these peoples’ silence and their loneliness after 2,000 years. The scientists, the archaeologists didn’t open the mummies, this was done through technology. They were not opened, they were not cut up, they were respected.

NT: Máté, as an Egyptologist, how does that feel for you… that your audience can now get closer to your work?

MP: I think it’s a very important goal of museology in the 21st century. We are working with ancient artefacts and among these artefacts mummies are special simply because they are so fragile. They have to be kept in very specific conditions. But the new technology allows people to explore them like never before.

The main goal of ancient Egyptian mummification was, after all, to keep the name and the person of somebody for eternity. So in this way, using the scientific methods now available to us, we can pursue this goal of the ancient Egyptians, we can keep alive for many thousand years the name of an ancient Egyptian from the 3rd century BC called Hortesnakht, using a 21st century technology (3 D-animation) device.

NT: And András, what next?

ANy: We are always talking nowadays about revolutions, but what is happening with computers now is a genuine revolution. Until now, to use a computer, you knew you needed a keyboard, a mouse, a browser and so on. But all this is disappearing. Now we have this brave new technology: one tablet, with all the information on a screen. And you have to touch it, you have to interact with the information itself. This is the kind of multimedia technology we were dreaming about for 20 years, and now it’s here. So the role of multimedia developers like us is to find all those interesting contents worth showing on this device. Like the Budapest Mummy Project.

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