The British Museum is famous for no end of reasons, but one of the things it’s most synonymous with is its collection of Egyptian mummies. Incredibly, over the 250+ years that the museum has been maintaining its collection it has never unwrapped any of the mummies; in 2014 it opened a new exhibition called Ancient Lives, New Discoveries which uses the results of new technology to peer beneath the wrappings of eight of the mummies and show them in a new light. This book is the companion to the exhibition and tells the stories, or at least as much as can be determined, of these eight people and how their mummified remains came to be held at the museum.
Technology, when applied thoughtfully and creatively, can be of huge benefit in a museum environment; here the use of CT scanners to digitally visualize the eight mummies in question has allowed the museum to peel back the layers of each mummy, looking in astonishing detail at not just their wrappings but what remains of their skin, bones and organs. This reveals a wealth of information that could never have been seen before, from details of dental wear, health problems, identification of gender and likely age at death, to an incredible range of amulets placed on one of the bodies, and even an embalming tool left behind in one poor man’s skull. These mummies provide a cross section of Dynastic Egyptian history spanning 4,000 years, bookended by two naturally-preserved bodies but highlighting just how little changed in Egyptian funerary practices over that vast spread of time.
Beautifully laid out, with incredible digital images of the mummies balanced against photographs of other items from the museum, this is an easy to read, understandable book that nicely complements the exhibition. Each mummy is looked at in detail, with specific areas of interest highlighted, along with a range of interesting and relevant additional information to help build up a picture of who each person was when they were alive. While it doesn’t provide that much more information than the exhibition, it’s a great reminder of what can be learned from these mummies and a fascinating read even for those who haven’t seen the exhibition. What both the exhibition and the book provide is a strong reminder that not only are these mummies items of historical importance, they’re also the remains of real people, relatable despite the vast gulf of time that separates them from us.