Scientist opens mummy coffin, finds more than dust
Scientist opens mummy coffin, finds more than dust The mummified body of Minirdis, a 14-year-old Egyptian boy and his burial mask lie in his opened coffin at the Field Museum. His exposed toes appear at left (AP photos)
Scientist opens mummy coffin, finds more than dust
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Once the lid was off the wood coffin holding the 2,500-year-old mummified remains of a 14-year-old Egyptian boy, scientist J.P. Brown could relax.

The conservator at Chicago's Field Museum and three other scientists had just used clamps and pieces of metal to create a cradle to raise the fragile lid. Wearing blue surgical gloves, they slowly lifted the contraption containing the coffin lid and carefully walked it to a table in a humidity-controlled lab at the museum.

"Sweet!" Brown said, after helping set the lid down, later adding, "Oh yeah, I was nervous."

The well-planned routine came as scientists started conservation work on the mummy of Minirdis, the son of a priest. The mummy needs to be stabilized so it can travel in the upcoming exhibit, "Mummies: Images of the Afterlife," which is expected to premier next September at the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County. It is expected to travel to the Denver Museum of Nature and Science in fall 2016.

The Field Museum has had the mummy since the 1920s, when the institution received it from the Chicago Historical Society, and it's part of the museum's collection of 30 complete human mummies from Egypt.

"There's always a risk of damage," said Brown, who did the work in a lab filled with plastic-covered examination tables set behind a large window to let schoolchildren watch his daily work, "so we like to handle these things as little as possible."

Inside the coffin, CT scans, which make X-ray images that allow scientists to see inside the coffin before opening it, showed the boy's feet were detached and partially unwrapped with his toes sticking out. His shroud and mask were torn and twisted sideways. They will be repaired.

Brown didn't worry that the mummy would scatter to dust when opened something common in the movies. Pieces of the coffin had previously gone missing, exposing the mummy to the elements.

"The last bit of 'Indiana Jones' and all that," Brown explained before opening the coffin. "That's not going to happen."

And it didn't.

Walking around the opened coffin, Brown pointed and explained the significance of a certain marking, the colored resin on the linen wrappings or the gilded gold on the mask. If Minirdis had lived, he would have been a priest like his father, Brown said, although scientists don't know why he died so young.

"The fascinating thing about any mummy is that it's survived as long as it has," Brown said. "They're actually amazingly fragile."

This kind of work is always painstaking, filled with pre-planning and tests so scientists are prepared for the unexpected, said Molly Gleeson, who works with mummies as project conservator at Penn Museum's "In the Artifact Lab: Conserving Egyptian Mummies" exhibition in Philadelphia.

"These are unique individuals, unique objects," she said. "There's nothing else like them. If damage were to happen, we can't put things back together exactly the way they were before."

Critical thinking challenge: Why did the Field Museum bother with opening the mummy before shipping it to Los Angeles?

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Assigned 20 times

  • antoniod-Koc
    12/15/2014 - 01:11 a.m.

    It's quite crazy that someone can be preserved for such a long time. 2,500 years I would think that it the remains would already be dust.

  • mattf-Koc
    12/15/2014 - 01:51 a.m.

    I have always thought mummies were cool. I think we all have, the idea of a 2,500 year old person being rapped up into a toilet paper like materiel and placed in a tomb is just so unique and in a way funny. I can't believe how fragile these guys are though. I mean one little mistake and they could crumble into thousands of pieces and never be fixed. Especially when you find one like this that already has broken and torn up body parts.

  • LTaylor-Cas
    12/15/2014 - 10:59 a.m.

    I think the fact that there are mummies and they're real is kinda weird but at the same time cool. I think it also must be very hard to care for the mummies and make sure nothing happens to the artifacts and they aren't damaged.

  • symones-Koc
    12/15/2014 - 11:38 a.m.

    If somebody was looking in a casket and somebody been dead for some year. And they went and seen that there was still see the body and everything .

  • Tustin200
    12/15/2014 - 01:47 p.m.

    I am wondering, why is a mummy so much more important than any other dead person from 2000 years ago? Is it that the coffin that they are held in is important? I you found a person from 2000 years ago from South America or Asia would it be just as important?

  • Scooter_Smith10
    12/15/2014 - 01:50 p.m.

    I think mummies are really interesting. I think its cool that they took the risk to open the coffin knowing that there's a chance that something bad may happen. It would be cool if they some how figure out how the boy died at 14.

  • KAnthony-Cas
    12/15/2014 - 09:07 p.m.

    I think this is very interesting. I also think mummification is cool but scary. its very unique how they stay preserved. I wonder why the kid died so young.

  • tyresel-Orv
    12/15/2014 - 10:20 p.m.

    I would have been nervous too just because of all of the myths of being cursed. Thats not the main reason for me being nervous, the main reason would be because of booby-traps they have in those pyramids.

  • TreyvaunT
    12/16/2014 - 01:49 p.m.

    I remember when I used to be very scared of mummies. I always thought that if I would look at one in the museum it would attack me. It was a ridiculous thing to think.

  • Haley Patterson
    12/16/2014 - 01:50 p.m.

    I think this is very interesting. I really like Egyptian and mummy stuff and I think it's pretty cool that they found a mummy that had something with it. I am also very curious as to how the boy died so young.

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