What do sarcophagi, 3D printing, and beer mugs have to do with each other? No, it’s not a theme for a new restaurant, it’s a traveling exhibit currently in residence at the Natural History Museum in Exposition Park, Los Angeles. The show was put together in Chicago’s Field Museum and was designed to let museum goers have an in-depth look at what goes on inside Ancient Egyptian caskets, in the Mummies: New Secrets from the Tombs exhibit, running in LA September 18, 2015-January 18, 2016.
Ryan Williams, a specialist in South American anthropology and curator at the Field, described how they developed this exhibit:
“We were loaned a portable CT scanner, and we’ve gotten very high resolution data about what’s wrapped in these bundles. We can tell things about the individuals who were buried – their age, their gender; we can tell about diseases that they had.”
This desire to penetrate beyond the outer layers and reveal a mummy’s secrets has been present in the West for quite some time. It’s hard to say when they were first held, but in the 18th century, mummy unwrapping parties were very fashionable events. People would be invited to gather and watch a self-professed mummy expert peel away the layers of cloth and resin to reveal the corpse below. It was all the excitement of a horror film combined with the titillation of a strip tease.
Now, with CT scanners and other non-invasive technologies, we can start to get a very clear picture of what goes on inside a mummy’s outer layers without having to damage the mummy itself. As part of the exhibit, visitors can explore the insides of the mummies as well, through interactive touchscreens that let them move at their own pace through each piece of the preserved contents.
As wonderful as digital imagery is, the sense of touch needs more than just a screen to feel engaged. Since it would be both impossible and unwise to let each of the museum’s visitors touch the mummies, the CT scan data has been used to create the files necessary to 3D print reproductions of the various objects inside. These pieces, 3D printed in resin, let people have the physical contact with the mummies and their belongings that really helps to bring them alive to the imagination.
One of the mummies, a woman who was unintentionally mummified 7,000 years ago inside of a wrapping of goat fur and reeds, was found to have a beer mug in her possession. It is not uncommon for people from around the world and throughout time to have been buried with prized possessions or tokens that indicate the content of their lives. This beer mug is not a token given to an alcoholic, but rather most likely symbolic of the importance of beer as a form of both sustenance and wealth.
“The Egyptians who worked on the building of the pyramids were paid in measures of beer. So beer was very important in Egypt.”
The mummies in this exhibit come not only from Ancient Egypt but also from Peru where the bodies were preserved because of the dry conditions of the Altiplano and so represent two very different approaches to the preparation and preservation of the bodies of the deceased. Perhaps they are so fascinating partly because they cause us to realize that those they left behind were at one time as real as we are now. Rather than representing a morbid fascination with death, these mummies remind us of the brevity and sweetness of life and give us hope that somehow we will not be annihilated by death but rather glorified through it.
And when I go, I will definitely want to take my beer mug with me. Discuss this story in the 3D Printed Mummy forum thread on 3DPB.com.