When you think of uncovering the secrets of Ancient Egypt or unravelling the mysteries of Peruvian mummies, the first thing that comes to mind is likely far more Indiana Jones at the Great Pyramids or hacking his way through a jungle than it is scientists with a CT scanner. But that’s about to change with the Field Museum’s highly-anticipated Mummies exhibit, which opens today. Mummies is instead perfectly in tune with the rebrand that recently happened at the museum, showcasing the science that made the most recent discoveries about mummies possible- everything from CT scanning to 3D printing and imaging technology.
The exhibit is so science forward, in fact, that the very first thing you’ll see upon walking in is a CT scanner. And it’s not a prop—it’s real. GE donated the scanner to the Field Museum for the exhibit. CT scans and MRIs were done on the Field Museum’s mummies starting back in 2011, and the results helped scientists learn far more about the people whose bodies were preserved this way than they had ever known before- even things as personal as whether they had curly hair.
Mummies isn’t just science forward, though—it’s learning forward. Most people have at least passing knowledge of the traditions of Ancient Egypt, including mummification. But mummification was already practiced by other cultures well before the Ancient Egyptians started to use the technique, and in arid climates where mummification sometimes happened somewhat naturally. Ancient Peruvians mummified their dead up until 500 years ago, and the Field Museum devotes quite a bit of time and space in Mummies to introducing you to the culture of different tribes in Ancient Peru- like the Chinchorro, Chancay and Nazca.
You will see amazingly well preserved and cared for mummies in the exhibit, of course, but you’ll also learn quite a bit about what these various cultures were like, and how the people who lived out full lives in them went about their daily lives- what they did, what their families were like. There are beautiful artifacts out of the Chancay and Nazca cultures in particular, from pottery to textiles, as well as a look at body modifications commonly practiced in those cultures.
In fact, one of the most amazing things about the exhibit as a whole has to do with the Chancay culture of Ancient Peru. Using CT scanning technology, scientists and conservators at the Field Museum were able to image not only the human remains, but also the items wrapped with them. Using 3D Printing technology, they were able to actually reproduce these, and you’ll find the 3D printings of these objects, available to run your fingers over, on the walls of the Mummies exhibit.
Once you do make your way over to the Ancient Egyptian portion of Mummies, you’ll see the same treatment there. One of the first mummies you’ll come across is more similar to the Ancient Peruvian mummy bundles in appearance. This particular example is predynastic and comes years before the mummies we usually think of. You’ll be able to see the actual mummy, and then using 3D imaging technology, explore every aspect of it, in cross-sections or from different angles, so that you can examine each piece in some of the same ways conservators would when handling it in preparation for the exhibit.
One more unique aspect of Mummies is in what you can’t do. While exploration and observation are what the Field Museum are all about, they’re also about respecting people and their culture, so you’ll note, as you wander through this exhibit, that there are many “no photography” signs. This was at the request of the Field conservators themselves, as though the museum has not made contact with any known ancestors of the dead, they’d like to respect the remains as what they were- real humans with loved ones. The Field asks all visitors to the museum to also respect those wishes and keep all photography, including selfies, to the artifacts and reproductions rather than the mummies themselves.
In fact, bringing life to the mummies is one of the things that Mummies does the best. You will see spectacular things- wonderful pottery, painted sarcophagi, elaborate canopics and other artworks, among the mummies, but there is a strong emphasis on who these people were when they lived- fisherman, families, royals and peasants. CT Scanning at the Field has provided us with more information than we’ve ever had before about the people entombed so long ago, down to their hair type and face shape. In fact, there’s enough information to actually recreate these people so well that you can look into their eyes—and you will. The 3D scanning led to facial reconstruction, and once facial reconstruction was complete, the models were sent to an effects house to be turned into incredibly realistic busts. As you end your time with Mummies, you will find yourself face to face with these Ancient Egyptians.
It’s easy to get complacent when you’re regularly visiting the world class museums basically littering the streets in Chicago, and easy, too, to forget how truly priceless the things we see at them are. Mummies at the Field Museum represents some of the most precious artifacts ever found from Ancient Peru and Egypt (all of which come solely from the Field Museum’s own collection), as well as some of the most groundbreaking science happening in the world. You are seeing and touching things that up until a few years ago, no one had ever seen or touched before, and coming face to face with these cultures in a way that is only now possible. It’s truly stunning, and the reason we think everyone should make a trip out to see this dynamic new exhibit.