Archive for Sunday, May 30, 1999


May 30, 1999


A 2,700-year-old mummy tells museum officials about life in ancient Egypt.

Robert Cohon unwraps the mummified mysteries of ancient Egypt. CAT scans, X-rays and years of study are his tools.

Cohon's latest subject is the mummy Kharushere, a man with good teeth and beautiful feet who lived nearly 2,700 years ago and was employed by one of the temples of the ancient creator god Amun in Thebes.

"He was not a field worker. He was in the higher bureaucracy and made a comfortable living," said Cohon, a curator at the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art in Kansas City, Mo. "He was 30 to 35. We took a close look (with a CAT scan) at his spine and ribs. They can help tell his age."

Kharushere, his painted coffin and nearly 40 other antiquities explaining Egyptian beliefs about the afterlife will be on display beginning Friday night at the Nelson-Atkins Museum. The objects are on loan from New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Science and art

A doctor at Cornell University Medical Center in New York oversaw the CAT scans of the mummy, which was discovered in 1885 by Gaston Maspero, a famous Egyptologist, Cohon said. The doctor took scans every five millimeters, from one end of the mummy to the other, to reveal what lay underneath its hundreds of yards of linen wrappings.

"There was a curiosity -- his feet were beautiful. All the toes were in perfect alignment," Cohon said. "If you're a field worker, your feet aren't going to be very pretty after a point. Our fellow had a desk job," he said with a laugh.

"We were looking at his hips. The doctor found a mild inflammation at the hip joints and that was the beginning of arthritis. He probably was starting to feel some discomfort in the hips.

"There was a big surprise -- he had good teeth," he added, explaining that most Egyptians of that time had cavities, but not from eating too much sugar. "It was from wind-blown sand. They would let their dough rise in the sun and wind-borne sands blew into the dough. " It gradually wears down the enamel, so most Egyptians had bad teeth. When the enamel wears down, it exposes the teeth and gums to infection that can enter into the blood stream and they can die."

Cohon said the CAT scans also revealed that Kharushere's vital organs, such as the liver, lungs and stomach, were removed and then mummified, wrapped and put back into his body. Because the ancient Egyptians thought the heart was the center of emotion and moral character, they left that organ in the body. Oftentimes, an amulet of gold or fine stone portraying certain gods or goddesses was placed under the wrappings and to protect the mummy's heart.

A lifetime, an eternity

Like many other ancient cultures, the Egyptians believed in life after death, but they took far greater care to preserve the bodies of the dead, a ritual considered essential if the soul was to go on living.

"They wanted the body to last an eternity," he said. "It took 70 days to mummify your body -- it must have been a big business. There were 10 to 20 (bodies) in one funeral parlor (at the same time). It must have smelled terrible."

The Egyptians also believed painting certain scenes on a coffin would make them occur. Kharushere's coffin, Cohon said, was fashioned after images of Osiris, the god of the afterlife, so he could magically become like Osiris and be resurrected as he was.

Before attaining eternal life, Kharushere would have faced judgment for the character and morality he displayed in life. A scene painted on his coffin's exterior depicts him receiving a favorable verdict and therefore eternal life.

"They regarded death as a transformation," Cohon said. "What's interesting is how elaborate the theories are about his transformation. It makes modern Western ideas about the afterlife quite bland."

Artifacts and status

Also included in the exhibition are:

  • Canopic jars, which housed the internal organs of the dead.

The images of the four sons of the god Horus, who were thought to protect the organs, top the 15- to 18-inch-tall jars: the human-headed Imsety guards the liver; the ape-headed Hapy protects the lungs; the jackal-headed Duatmutef guards the stomach; and the falcon-headed Qebehsenuef protects the intestines.

  • Five small statues that would have been buried with the dead.

Every year, Cohon said, the Egyptian government conscripted laborers to build and maintain reservoir and irrigation systems, and people worried that they might similarly be drafted in the afterlife.

"They thought the afterlife might be rampant with officials calling you up to fix a ditch," he said.

To avoid such labors, the dead were buried with the 3- to 9-inch statues, which they believed could magically serve as their substitutes when called upon to do an undesirable task in the afterlife.

Originally, in the second millennium B.C., one or two figures might have been buried with the deceased. Later, it became more common to be buried with hundreds of the statues, one for each day of the year. One ruler, Cohon said, was buried with 1,277 figurines.

-- Jan Biles' phone message number is 832-7146. Her e-mail address is


What: "Echoes of Eternity: The Egyptian Mummy and the Afterlife" exhibition.

When: 5 p.m. Friday through May 7, 2000.

Where: Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, 4525 Oak St., Kansas City, Mo.

Special programs:

  • Saturday: "The Daily Life of the Egyptian Dead," lecture by Richard Fazzini, chairman of the department of Egyptian, classical and ancient Middle Eastern art at the Brooklyn Museum of Art, 2 p.m., Atkins Auditorium.
  • June 20, Aug. 8, Nov. 7, Jan. 16, March 5 and May 7: "Explore Egypt!," hands-on events for children and adults, 1:30 p.m.-3:30 p.m., Kirkwood Hall.
  • July 6 through Aug. 5: "Echoes of Eternity: The Egyptian Mummy and the Afterlife," tours for children ages 8 to 12 led by teen-age museum guides, 10 a.m., 11 a.m., noon and 1 p.m. Tuesdays-Fridays. To schedule, call (816) 751-1238.
  • July 23 and 30: "Mummy Book," an art and creative writing class for adults, 6:30 p.m.-8:30 p.m., Creative Arts Center. For information, call (816) 751-1236.
  • Oct. 29: "Echoes of Eternity: The Egyptian Mummy and the Afterlife," class for teachers, 5 p.m.-7 p.m., Atkins Auditorium. To enroll, call (816) 751-1312.
  • Nov. 6 and 13: "Echoes of Eternity: The Egyptian Mummy and the Afterlife," class for teachers, 9 a.m. to 4 p.m., Atkins Auditorium. To enroll for continuing education credit, call (816) 235-1188; for noncredit enrollment, call (816) 751-1312.

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