Egyptian Mummies

Why Mummify?

In 1864, with the help of the Giza Museum in Cairo, Edward Ayer began to assemble the Museum’s Egyptian Collections. His purchases included important funerary objects such as coffins, Books of the Dead, two intact chapel rooms from the tombs of Unis-ankh and Netcheruser—and dozens of mummies.

While little is known about the archaeological context of many of these artifacts, they still tell us quite a bit about Egyptian culture. For example, the ancient Egyptians believed there were three types of beings: gods, living humans, and the dead who had achieved the afterlife.

But the afterlife had to be achieved through a special set of circumstances:

  • Most importantly, the body had to be preserved through a lengthy mummification process.
  • Next, prayers, spells, and symbols on the coffin helped guide the soul to the afterlife and ensured favor with the gods.
  • And finally, grave goods and tomb offerings that include food, furniture, clothing, jewelry—and even mummified animals—provided all the necessities for the afterlife.

To the Egyptians, these funerary rituals were the best way to honor deceased family and friends and ensure that they enjoyed life beyond the grave.

Mummifying Animals

Archeologists often find mummified animals in the tombs of Egyptians. In some cases, these appear to be household pets, perhaps intended to provide companionship in the afterlife.

Occasionally, mummified animals appear to have been meant as a source of food for the deceased, to sustain him or her during the journey to the other world.

However, most animal mummies were offerings to a god associated with the animal. Archaeologists have uncovered enormous cemeteries all over Egypt containing thousands of mummified cats, birds, crocodiles, and more.

Inca Mummies

Perhaps the most well-known South American mummies are the Inca ice mummies, called the capacocha, or “royal blessing.”

As the honored children of local nobles, they traveled from their homelands to Cuzco, the Inca capital, where they were celebrated and received gifts.

After they returned home to their native province, priests fed them corn beer and quickly sacrificed them to send them to the gods. Their bodies, along with gifts of gold and silver figurines and fine pottery, were then buried on icy peaks as messengers to the mountain deities.

CT Scanning

Due to their extreme fragility, the last time many of the Museum’s mummies were examined was in 1931, when conventional 2D x-rays of them were published in Fieldiana. These x-rays often raised more questions than they answered.

Thanks to the generosity of Robert Dakessian, President and CEO of Genesis Medical Imaging, a mobile medical CT scanner mounted in a specially adapted truck was brought to the Museum, where it was set up in the West Parking Lot and used to generate scans of specimens.

Scanning Specialists

The Museum invited many specialists—such at Dr. Michael Li, DDS, MS from UIC Orthodontics, Dr. Jeffrey Rosengarten, MD, Chairman of the Department of Radiology at Northwestern Lake Forest Hospital, and Dr. Mary Peters, DDS and volunteer in the Museum’s Geology Department—to view and analyze the scans.

These specialists helped to clarify the sex, age, and health issues faced by each specimen, and determine whether injuries to the mummies were sustained before death, during the embalming process, or some time afterwards.