Science & Technology

There Was a Mummy Inside This Museum Sarcophagus, and No One Realized It for 151 Years

Let's say you just inherited an old suitcase from your grandpa. Grandma said it was empty, but you can feel that it's full of something. You'd at least want to check it out, right? Well, apparently not everyone has your same drive to investigate. After 150 years, curators at the Nicholson Museum discovered that a prized Egyptian sarcophagus wasn't empty after all.

The coffin undergoes CT scanning.

Shocked by an Egyptian

Sydney University chancellor Charles Nicholson brought this sarcophagus to Australia in 1860, and since at least 1948 it's been listed in the records as containing nothing but "mixed debris." But when curators at the museum finally opened the coffin for the first time in 2017, they were shocked to discover a bonafide mummy inside, complete with bandages. It wasn't all in one piece, but that barely fazed lead investigator Jamie Fraser, who told the BBC, "I've never excavated an Egyptian tomb, but this comes close."

So who was this unexpected guest, and how did they go unnoticed for so long? Scientists are a careful lot, so they're unwilling to say they definitely know the answer to the first question at the moment, but there are some pretty major clues. For one thing, the coffin has a name on it — Mer-Neith-it-es, a priestess of the temple of Sekhmet. According to Dr. Fraser, if radiocarbon dating turns up a date of about 600 B.C.E. for the mummy, and if they can verify that the body belonged to a woman, that will probably be enough proof that the name on the box matches its contents.

As far as how it escaped the notice of experts for so long, well — it was hiding in plain sight. The sarcophagus was likely looted several centuries ago, and what the thieves left behind was disjointed, destroyed, or reduced to dust. On top of that, the coffin itself is carved out of cedar instead of a more valuable material. Maybe Dr. Nicholson took one look at the debris inside this wooden box and decided it couldn't possibly be worth anything.

CT scan results
CT scan results reveal the mummy's toes

Cold Case Pharoahs

Believe it or not, the fact that the mummy is in such a discombobulated state is actually good news in some respects. Most of the time, when a full-body mummy is found, conservators leave it that way. That's a good thing, but it doesn't tell us a whole lot about how the person lived and died. Because this mummy is already broken apart, it offers an opportunity for tests that can't be carried out on bodies that are still in one piece. That means that whether this is the body of Mer-Neith-it-es or not, this person is about to teach us a lot about ancient Egyptian life.

Living people have long had a strange relationship with mummies — a relationship filled with equal parts fear, dread, fascination, and greed. But perhaps no one has ever had a connection with mummies like the eccentric 20th century robber-baron Theodore Davis. In John M. Adams' "The Millionaire and the Mummies," you can follow Davis' journey through the desert sand and into archaeological history.

The Royal Mummy Test

Written by Reuben Westmaas April 30, 2018

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