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What in the World Is a Grain Mummy?

/ August 7, 2019

While researching our ancient Egyptian collection, NCMA Egyptologist Caroline Rocheleau discovered that an object once thought to be a falcon mummy is, in fact, a grain mummy. It was at one time believed to be a fake. The exhibition What in the World Is a Grain Mummy?, on view in West Building, presents this humble bundle for the first time. Rocheleau talked with Circa about her discovery.

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Julie K. Smitka: Let’s start with the exhibition title. What in the world is a grain mummy?

Caroline Rocheleau: It’s grains in Nile mud. It’s sort of a silhouette of a person, but its use is not like that of human mummies.

JKS: How so?

CR: Human corpses were mummified so that the bodies would be preserved for the afterlife. Animals were mummified, too. Mummified pets could reunite with their owners after death, and other mummified animals from temples could be bought as offerings to gods.

For example, it was common for a pilgrim to purchase a little falcon mummy and bring it to a temple as an offering to the god of the temple. It was believed the god would listen to the pilgrim’s prayer or message if an offering was given.

JKS: What’s the most notable distinction between those mummies and a grain mummy?

CR: Because the grain isn’t an animal or a human, you don’t have organs to remove. The mummification is different; there’s no mummification, per se. We call it mummy because of the bandages.

JKS: How did the NCMA obtain a grain mummy?

CR: When it was given to us, it was believed to be a falcon mummy because it came in a falcon-shaped coffin. Now we know it clearly wasn’t! Several years ago, before I came to the Museum, it was decided that the “mummy” should be x-rayed so that we would have a visual for the bones that would help explain what a falcon mummy is. But there were no bones! At first, it was assumed the x-ray machine was faulty. So a CAT scan was used. After that, it was placed in storage, never to be seen again because it was assumed to be a fake!

When I came to the Museum, my task was to go through all the objects in the collection and verify our collection contents. I was told about this little bundle that had been an embarrassment. My response was, “Can I see it? I think you have a grain mummy.”

JKS: How did you prove it?

CR: We redid the x-ray here at the Museum, and then we found somebody at the hospital who had a spot available for us for another scan. Both revealed inner grains that appear as speckles. We don’t see bones because there aren’t any bones!

We weren’t the first museum to have this happen, where you think you have something and it’s something entirely different. Most falcon mummies in museums are actually grain mummies because of that. Until people start scanning their falcon mummies to confirm there are actually bones inside, they won’t know for certain.

JKS: How do we preserve a grain mummy for display in an art museum? It has been preserved in its own way, but how do we protect it as a curatorial object?

CR: Because we’re dealing with dried mud and grains wrapped in flaking bandages, we contacted other museums and asked what they do with theirs to prevent the bandages from falling apart. One museum suggested we place the grain mummy in a nylon stocking because it’s sheer. But when you do that, you can’t ever take it out. The friction causes more flaking.

Instead, we used a silk crepaline cover tucked over the grain mummy. It’s much more easily removed and without so much damage. But that’s only helpful in preventing more flaking. Like any delicate object, it needs to be in a vitrine where nobody can touch it.

JKS: How old is it?

CR: Over 2,000 years old, but definitely not one of the oldest in the NCMA collection. That would be closer to 6,000 years old.

JKS: There’s an art in itself to the conservation and preservation of objects, but what argument would you make for having this in an art museum?

CR: Of all kinds of art, Egyptian art is the one that fits in art, history, archaeology, and science museums. I think it’s because of the nature of the material that’s being preserved—the mummified remains—whether it’s a bird, a human, etc. It’s more about the artistic achievement. Egyptians were very good draftsmen, graphic designers, and architects, so you see this in what has been preserved, and it easily fits in an art museum.

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