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Natural History Museum's new mummies exhibit has unopened caskets, 3D printing and mummified beer mugs

by Patt Morrison with Kevin Ferguson | Off-Ramp®

Fragment of a sarcophagus (stone coffin) of Late–Ptolemaic Egypt (664–30 BC). The entire limestone sarcophagus would have weighed several thousand pounds. The sarcophagus once held inside a wooden coffin and a mummy, and all three may have once been placed inside a larger stone box. John Weinstein/The Field Museum

To a kid visiting a museum, is there anything more fascinating than mummies?

A new, continent spanning exhibit of mummies  arrived this month at the Natural History Museum in Exposition Park. In a traveling exhibit from Chicago's Field Museum, visitors get the chance to look into the rituals around mummification: how they were preserved, what they were buried with. But this exhibit also takes visitors inside caskets that are unopened — and probably never will be.

"We were loaned a portable CT scanner, and we've gotten very high resolution data about what's wrapped in these bundles," says Field Curator Ryan Williams, who specializes in South American anthropology. "We can tell things about the individuals who were buried — their age, their gender; we can tell about diseases that they had."

The exhibit features several mummies in the flesh — so to speak — ensconced in thick glass for security and temperature control, but the real draw in the exhibit might be its interactive, approachable side. There are several interactive touch screens that let visitors explore the inside of sarcophagi and coffins, piece by piece.

Some of the artifacts can even be touched, kind of. The CT scans of some of the mummies produced enough info to allow them to be 3D-printed in resin. Williams points to one scan from a bundle of a young child buried in Peru. 

"We see three figurines and a gourd bowl," says Williams. "And what this is telling us is a bit about the burial traditions of these people. Each of these figurines is a female figurine. So it tells us, perhaps, this was a young girl — we aren't really sure. And these figurines were probably tokens of importance to the individual. They were placed there after she died by her family members. And maybe they were meant to guide her."

Some ancient Egyptians, on the other hand, preferred to go to the grave with their beer mugs. James Phillips, a curator specializing in Egyptology, points to a woman unintentionally mummified by the reeds and goat fur she was covered in, about 7,000 years ago.

"The Egyptians who worked on the building of the pyramids were paid in measures of beer," he says. "So beer was very important in Egypt."

Mummies: New Secrets from the Tombs is open at the Natural History Museum from Sept. 18 to Jan. 18, 2016. Check the exhibit website for tickets and more info. 

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