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If most of what you know about mummies comes from Scooby Doo, get over to the Museum of Natural History within the next four months.
An entire collection of authentic Egyptian artifacts from the Museo Archeologico Nazionale di Firenze in Florence, Italy is making its North American debut in Halifax until June 21.
Just in time for March break (funny how that works), the exhibit has over 100 artifacts, including mummies, incredibly well-preserved sarcophagi littered with hieroglyphics, and a collection of personal items the ancients planned to take to the afterlife but that ended up in Halifax.
As the Italian crew were — very carefully — placing thousands-year-old items into glass cases Wednesday in preparation of the opening Saturday, Jeffrey Gray, curator of visitor experience, walked through the construction zone.
“Really, this show is a look at their preparation for the afterlife. Visitors will go through three rooms.The first room looks at mummification so the visitors who are interested in mummies will get that right at the beginning of the exhibit,” Gray said.
The second room is filled with sarcophagi in glass cases specially built for this exhibit in Sherbrooke Village and Ross Farm. These are coffins more than 3,000 years old that are decorated inside and out, and kept remarkably intact and vibrant thanks to being entombed in a desert, away from sunshine and moisture.
“They’ll move into a third room, which does feature those everyday items, which I think is a really great opportunity for visitors to be able to see the similarities and differences between today and the ancient past. It does show that whole process of how people planned their death so they could move into that eternal life.”
Under the lights in the third room are tiny statues made of wood, limestone, basalt and other materials with clearly carved and painted hieroglyphics that date 1550-1010 BCE (Before Common Era, before our current calendar). There are sandals woven from plant fibres from 1550-1070 BCE, plus beauty accessories and cosmetics like jars of kohl, combs and mirrors, which were widely used by both men and women.
Check out the beautiful alabaster cosmetic bowl that is over 4,000 years old (2323-2152 BCE).
But the main attraction, let’s face it, is the mummies, and there are plenty of them: whole and in pieces.
Make sure to read the panels for gems like: “After smashing through the ethmoid or nasal bone, a long, metal hook-shaped instrument was introduced to the left nostril to gradually remove the brain. Sometimes decerebration took place through a hole made at the base of the skull or by drilling through the eye socket.”
Exploring the mummification process, including the tools used to take out the organs, is one of the big components of the exhibit, said Maria Cristina Guidotti, director and curator at the Museo Archeologico Nazionale di Firenze.
“The reaction is very big, a great response because maybe it’s the first time we exposed the process of the mummification to the public, the first time the public know how the Egyptian dead go in the afterlife.”
Guidotti has taken this exhibit throughout China, Germany, Austria and Finland — as well as its home in Florence — but this is a special stop for her. She retired a few months ago but wanted to be in Halifax for the North American premiere.
There’s one piece that is a big standout for Guidotti because she discovered it a few years ago in a museum storage room. The Coffin of Padimut, made of wood, is dated 1069-656 BCE.
The sarcophagus belonged to a priest named Padimut, and what’s unusual about this piece (besides that it lay forgotten in a storage room for years) is the painted image of Padimut facing his own mummy holding a hieroglyphic text bearing a dedication to himself. The sides of the coffin show Padimut making offerings to deities, and the lid features a mask of his face wearing a ritual beard.
A large painting of Osiris, god of the dead dominates the middle piece.
It’s incredible hieroglyphics like these that have captured the world’s attention for generations. It’s one reason local curators like Gray have been working for years to bring an Egyptian exhibit to Halifax (the first for the museum) and why opening weekend will probably be a zoo.
“It’s so different from our current time and it does hold a lot of mystery that seems to capture people. It’s something that is featured so much in pop culture today that from a very young age, kids are exposed to mummies and that ancient world,” said Gray.
Ever since it was announced in January that the show was coming to town, there has been intense interest.
“If this show is like the last couple years, every weekend will be a busy weekend, but I think that’s part of the fun. Part of the excitement of going to these big shows is the shared experience of seeing it with other people,” he said.
“But there are 120 days for people to see the show so there are lots of opportunities.”
If you go:
- Egyptian Mummies and Eternal Life at the Museum of Natural History
- Runs Feb. 22-June 21
- Open seven days a week, 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Open late on Wednesday nights until 9 p.m.