A few weeks ago, I did something I had never done before: I went to the doctor’s office—with a grain mummy! I was accompanied by Billy, our chief conservator who did the handling, and Chris, our photographer who documented this unusual event.
When we announced ourselves at the reception desk at Wake Internal Medicine Consultants, where Mr. Shireman had generously scheduled an appointment for a CT scan, the staff whispered excitedly that the ‘mummy people’ had arrived. Everybody was thrilled at the prospect of having such an old and unusual patient—the grain mummy is approximately 2500 years old. What an experience that was!
We were able to scan the grain mummy quickly because it is rather small and it neither moves nor has a heartbeat. (Tom, our head art handler who made a special box for it to travel, said it was the size of a foot-long sub at Jersey Mike’s). If it did move, we’d all be astounded because a grain mummy is a small bundle made up of grains (emmer wheat and/or barley) and Nile mud. It was given a vague human shape to resemble Osiris, the god of the underworld, and was wrapped up in linen bandages just like a real mummy and placed inside a small falcon-shaped coffin representing the funerary god Ptah-Sokar-Osiris. Placed inside a tomb, the grain mummy symbolised fertility and the cycle of life, and was thought to aid the deceased be reborn in the afterlife.
As was hinted at on the x-ray we took at the Museum over a year ago and confirmed with the CT scan, the grains were mixed with the mud—a bit like chocolate chips in a cake. The scan also seems to indicate that the grains have disintegrated (or been eaten by insects?) over the centuries, leaving a network of cavities throughout the mud core. That was rather interesting, I thought, and could not have been seen without the scan.
Very few museums have studied their grain mummies using more advance technologies. That’s unfortunate because I would love to compare the scan of our grain mummy to that of a few others. Maybe there were different ways of making grain mummies or perhaps specific methods were used during specific historical periods or particular regions in Egypt. The results of the scan will be included in the catalogue of Egyptian art I am currently writing and hopefully it will inspire other museums to scan their grain mummies and help scholars find out more about them.
In addition to the Museum staff who worked on this project, I would like to thank Drs. Stuart Levin and Robert Lacin, who answered our call for assistance, Mr. Christopher Shireman for scheduling the scan, and Ms. Billie Jean Messer for working her magic with the scanner. I would also like to say hello to Kristen Shireman, budding Egyptologist, who was as interested in this as I was. Last but not least, I would like to thank GlaxoSmithKline for making my work at the NCMA possible.