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Once at Mia: A mummy and her secrets

Lady Tashat had roommates at first, fellow mummies, perhaps three or five altogether. They almost certainly didn’t know each other in life, but in death they were inseparable.

In the late 1800s, mummies, statues, and other ancient objects were flowing out of Egyptian digs to Europe and America, to museums and millionaires. The director of the School of Egyptology, in Cairo, a charismatic German who went by the honorific Brugsch Pasha, diverted nearly a thousand of the unearthed finds to Anthony Drexel, Jr., the playboy grandson of the famous Philadelphia financier—a shipment of nearly 4.5 tons. A few years later, in 1895, Drexel gave the collection to his father’s namesake university, which never knew what to do with it. They were pleased when, some two decades years later, an upstart Midwestern museum offered $5,000 for 701 of the objects.

An early photo of Lady Tashat's cartonnage and coffin at Mia in 1916.

An early photo of Lady Tashat’s cartonnage and coffin at Mia in 1916.

It was among the largest collections of Egyptian art in the country. The crates arrived in Minneapolis in 1916, when the museum was just over a year old, and went on display that November. The Egyptian room quickly became the most intriguing part of the museum. “…A collection which includes a funerary scroll of great antiquity, many charming little statues, two or three distinct portrait statues, jewelry, scarabs, models of work implements, and the mummy case of the Lady Ta-Chat, with a most fascinating portrait-mask, painted in the most vivacious and Egyptian colors,” raved the American Art Annual, a broad survey of the year in art, in 1917.

By the time these Minneapolis high-school students visited, in the 1960s, most of the collection was gone. Richard Davis, director of Mia for a few years in the 1950s, had managed to sell much of it, along with thousands of other antiquities, in order to purchase more modern art. By the time he was compelled to resign in 1959, there were just a handful of Drexel pieces left.

The lower part of a coffin, part of the Drexel collection purchased by Mia in 1916.

The lower part of a coffin, part of the Drexel collection purchased by Mia in 1916.

Lady Tashat’s companions were gone. Or so it appeared. She had been hiding another all along. Drexel had no idea. But in 1923, Mia became curious to know if there was indeed a mummy in the Lady’s coffin. Alan Burroughs, the young and enterprising son of the curator of paintings at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, was working as an assistant curator at Mia at the time, and took it upon himself to scan the coffin with X-rays. Not only did he find a mummy inside, he found her bones to be badly battered—and an extra skull, stuffed between her legs.

Burroughs left Mia a few years later and become the foremost practitioner of X-ray art investigation, revealing forgeries and masterpieces alike. Lady Tashat has since been CT-scanned, poked, and prodded, and none of her mysteries have been given up. She has also regained some company: In 1983, when she was first CT-scanned, two more mummies—now tucked away in storage—were added to the collection, making three or four altogether, depending on how you count.