Posts Tagged With: Mummies

Rabbit’s Feet, Four Leaf Clovers…Dung Beetles? The History of the Egyptian Scarab

Of all the ancient Egyptian “treasures” I have in my collection, the one that is most precious to me is a scarab necklace given to me by my parents. It has become my good luck charm, worn to almost every interview, class presentation, and stressful event I can remember; but is this how the ancient Egyptians would have used the scarab amulet? Am I completely off-base?

Scarabs are one of the most revered zoomorphic symbols in the ancient Egyptian religion, although it is highly unlikely that you would uncover a horde of scarabs in a tomb like our friends in The Mummy:

courtesy of universal studios

courtesy of universal studios

The scarab served as the ancient Egyptian version of the Christian Cross; a symbol of protection and the journey of rebirth.  It is often associated with the sun god, Re, but this association arose from the Egyptians’ misunderstanding of the scarab’s life cycle. As described by the Met Museum,

An adult beetle lays its eggs inside a ball of dung, which is then buried underground. When the young beetles hatch, the only portion of this process easily visible to an observer is the beetle emerging fully developed from a dung ball, a seemingly magical event. Thus, the Egyptian word for scarab translates as “to come into being.”  The scarab forms food balls out of fresh dung using its back legs to push the oversized spheres along the ground toward its burrow. The Egyptians equated this process with the sun’s daily cycle across the sky, believing that a giant scarab moved the sun from the eastern horizon to the west each day, making the amulet a potent symbol of rebirth.*

*unmentioned in the article, the Egyptian word for scarab is hprr, which inspires the name of the god Khepri, the god of creation. The ‘Khepri name’ is also one of the titles of the pharaoh (but more on that later!).

This association with rebirth is illustrated through the collection of scarab iconography found during various excavations.  In one iteration, scarabs are a cheap and common charm, which ancient Egyptians could easily afford and would often wear each day, possibly strung on a cord as a necklace. This form of the scarab provided protective powers that warded off evil and brought blessings to the wearer. A second iteration of the scarab is the seal; these seals bore the name of the pharaoh, royal officials, or religious figures and functioned much like a Christian medal or scapular of a saint or holy prayer or image, providing protection and guidance through this world and potentially the next. The most important iteration of the scarab in the funerary tradition, where scarabs were wrapped between the layers of the mummy cloth and specifically set over the heart to help provide safe journey and offer guidance as the soul of the deceased traveled into the next life.

Knowing the ancient Egyptians’ obsession with death and the afterlife, it is clear that the scarab held immense symbolic power for all Egyptians, and was a necessary entity to their success in both this life and the next.  Now, if you’ll pardon me, I’ve got to find my necklace before I start my Masters Thesis…

necklace

Works Cited:

http://wcma.williams.edu/blog/amulets/

http://www.metmuseum.org/toah/works-of-art/10.130.910_27.3.206

http://museum.unl.edu/research/entomology/Egyptian_Sacred_Scarab/egs-text.htm

http://www.britishmuseum.org/explore/highlights/articles/e/egyptian_scarabs.aspx

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Mummies of the World: The Exhibition

Over the holidays I traveled to Cincinnati, Ohio to spend time with family and also had the opportunity to visit the amazing Cincinnati Museum Center for the very first time (Thanks Mama and Papa Hill)! Within this group of museums, tucked away in the lower level, was the site of one of my favorite holiday gifts: The Special Exhibition entitled Mummies of the World. One of the largest exhibitions of mummies and mummification objects to date, Mummies of the World includes both animal and human mummies from South America, Europe, and Egypt. This revolutionary exhibition focuses on the scientific processes, both intentional and natural, that have created mummies—from ancient Egypt to the remote bogs of Europe. The exhibit uses multimedia approaches such as videos and interactive computer programs to enhance the experience of the viewer in understanding how scientists investigated both the past processes of mummification and the causes of death of the mummies exhibited. Most highly stressed by the exhibit is the fact that the human mummies were all once living, breathing people, and as such they should be treated with great respect. Although I don’t want to spoil the exhibit, I can’t help but share with you my favorite ancient Egyptian aspects of this exhibition (and one non-Egyptian example that I just couldn’t resist!)

courtesy of the Cincinnati Museum Center

courtesy of the Cincinnati Museum Center

At the top of the ‘Must-See’ list for this exhibition is the “Maryland Mummy.” The Mummy of the University of Maryland at Baltimore, or MUMAB, is particularly unique due to its lack of ancient origins. MUMAB was created in 1994 by Egyptologist Robert Brier (who has worked on the Mummies of King Tut and Ramses II) of Long Island University and anatomist Ronald Wade of the University of Maryland using replicas of tools and following the processes that ancient Egyptians utilized over 2,000 years ago. The process appears to be successful, since the mummy shows no signs of decay at present, and has given scientists, archaeologists, and Egyptologists great insight into the process of mummification. (MUMAB is permanently kept at the San Diego Museum of Man, where it is on permanent loan from the University of Maryland School Of Medicine.)

Second on my Mummies of the World exhibition list are the mummies of Nes-Hor and Nes-Min*. In life, Nes-Min and Nes-Hor were priests of the Temple of Min in the ancient city of Khent-Min. Although they lived during different periods in ancient history (Nes-Min lived during the Late period, while Nes-Hor lived 200 years later in the Ptolemaic period), both were stolist priests and were responsible for caring after the temple’s many statues of the gods. Their sarcophagi were constructed from wood and painted with elaborate images and hieroglyphs indicating their names and occupations, as well as prayers to help guide their souls to the afterlife.

*Wondering why both priests have ‘Nes’ at the beginning of their names? In ancient Egyptian, ‘Nes’ means ‘he belongs to’, indicating the individual is a priest or some form of servant.

Last but not least, I can’t help but share one of the most interesting sets of mummies in this fabulous exhibition.

courtesy of the Cincinnati Museum Center

courtesy of the Cincinnati Museum Center

Meet the Orlovits family, a trio who belong to a group of 18th century mummies discovered in a crypt in Vac, Hungary in 1994. The Orlovits, along with over 250 other residents of Vac, were mummified—not on purpose during any post mortem procedure performed by other humans—but by a natural process involving the cool, dry air in their crypt and oil from the pine boards that were used to create their coffins. Michael and Veronica Orlovits and their son, Johannes, are particularly important due to the discovery of tuberculosis on the bones of the mummies. By taking tissue samples from the Orlovits family, scientists can study the tuberculosis infection, provide an idea of how drug-resistant strains develop, and work toward combatting such strains in the short term.

Overall, I thought that the Mummies of the World exhibition was well laid-out, informative, and successfully exhibited both objects and information in a manner very appropriate for its audience: A city of curious residents who are eager to get a more global perspective, and see exotic and interesting objects. While the case labels for the mummies and their accompanying artifacts, as well as the educational information provided, are not typical of a museum in language or vocabulary, they succeed in contributing to an exciting and informative exhibit for all visitors of every age.

Mummies of the World is at the Cincinnati Museum Center until April 26, 2015.

 (And while you are at CMC, check out the three museums and other exhibitions!)

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