Egypt’s mummies were intended to rest in peace for eternity, slumbering beneath the sand or high up in pyramids. But most were dug up almost immediately. Robbed of their valuables and their serenity. Dragged into darkened British parlors to be unwrapped for entertainment. Burned as train fuel.
But they’ve been slow to give up their secrets, including the mystery of what’s written on the so-called mummy cases they were buried in. The cases were made from scraps of papyrus, an ancient form of paper—waste papyrus, in other words. They contain the sort of mundane notes we now tend to type into our phones, or file away in banker’s boxes, never to be consulted again. Shopping lists. Tax returns. They could open a window onto everyday life in ancient Egypt, a largely lost history, if only we could read them without destroying the cases.
Recently, British researchers have found a way. Scanning the papyrus with different kinds of light can make the ink glow—make it readable—a phenomenon that would have made the hair on the heads of British spiritualists in the 1800s stand on end.
Of Mia’s three mummies, one has been subjected to almost every scanning technology to come along in the past hundred years. Lady Tashat was the first mummy to be x-rayed, in 1923. Indeed, she became famous for it, not so much for leading the way but because of what the x-rays revealed: a badly battered body and a second skull, tucked by her legs.
In the 1980s, she was flown to the Mayo Clinic, in Rochester, for CT scans, too. But the mystery of her burial has never been resolved. And none of the writing inside her case has been deciphered—yet.
Top image: close-up of the coffin of Lady Tashat, displayed in gallery G250 at Mia.