Scientist opens mummy coffin, finds more than dust
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. They wore blue surgical gloves, and slowly lifted the contraption containing the coffin lid. Then they carefully walked it to a table in a humidity-controlled lab at the museum.
"Sweet!" Brown said, after helping set the lid down. He later added: "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. It will appear 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.
The Field Museum has had the mummy since the 1920s. That's when the institution received it from the Chicago Historical Society. It's part of the museum's collection of 30 complete human mummies from Egypt.
"There's always a risk of damage," said Brown. He 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, there was expected damage. 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. Those 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. If Minirdis had lived, he would have been a priest like his father, Brown said. Scientists don't know why he died so young.
Critical thinking challenge: Why did the Field Museum bother with opening the mummy before shipping it to Los Angeles?