Art, Medicine & Ancient Egypt

On a recent Sunday, three mummies traveled from the Saint Louis Art Museum to Barnes-Jewish Hospital. (The story has been shared in both local and national media outlets, so now you might say to yourself: “I think I saw something about that…”). Although the mummies have been x-rayed before, this time they received CT scans using new, high-quality technology to help doctors and curators understand more about the lives of these three individuals. One of the mummies, Amen-Nestawy-Nakht, a male, belongs to the Saint Louis Art Museum, while the other two belong to the Mildred Lane Kemper Art Museum.

Art handlers, including the Kemper's own Jan Hessel (pictured), moved the three mummies from the Saint Louis Art Museum to Barnes-Jewish Hospital and back on Sunday, October 12, 2014.

Art handlers, including the Kemper’s own Jan Hessel (pictured), carefully lift the coffin of Henut-Wedjebu on Sunday, October 12, 2014 while preparing to transport the mummy to Barnes-Jewish Hospital.

It is a little-known fact that the Kemper Art Museum owns two ancient Egyptian mummies since they have never been on view at the current Mildred Lane Kemper Art Museum building.  Unbeknownst to many visitors, the mummies have actually been hiding in plain sight at the Saint Louis Art Museum, where they have been on loan on and off since the late 1920s. In addition to the Saint Louis Art Museum, one mummy, Henut-Wedjebu, a female, has been exhibited at the Museum of Science and Natural History in St. Louis and the Cleveland Art Museum, while the other, Pet-Menekh, a male, was on extended loan to the Museum of Art and Archaeology at the University of Missouri-Columbia for 10 years.

The mummies, Pet-Menekh and Henut-Wedjebu, were both given to the Saint Louis Museum and School of Fine Arts (the earliest iteration of what is now the Mildred Lane Kemper Art Museum) by Charles Parsons, a St. Louis banker, merchant, and art collector, in 1896. Parsons acquired the mummies that same year via a French Egyptologist named Emil Brugsch, who was employed by the Egyptian Museum, Cairo and the Egyptian Antiquities Service. Brugsch sold them to Parsons shortly after their discovery in tombs.

In July, 1984, Rodin’s Shade (1880) and the coffin and mummy of Pet-Menekh (3rd-4th century B.C.E.) were photographed in the previous Washington University Gallery of Art storage area. Note the “Mummy Mania” sticker on the shelving unit.

In July, 1984, Rodin’s Shade (1880) and the coffin and mummy of Pet-Menekh (3rd-4th century B.C.E.) were photographed in the previous Washington University Gallery of Art storage area. Note the “Mummy Mania” sticker on the shelving unit.

Henut-Wedjebu lived during the reign of Amenhotep III (the so-called Sun King) during the 18th dynasty (ca. 1580-1350 BC) of the New Kingdom. She died sometime between the age of 21 and 40. Her coffin was discovered by Georges Daressy, a French Egyptologist, in 1896 in a tomb near Thebes.  The tomb belonged to a male named Hatiay. Inscriptions on his coffin indicate he was “Scribe and Granary Overseer of the Mansion of the Aten” and perhaps Henut-Wedjebu’s husband. Besides Hatiay and Henut-Wedjebu, the tomb also contained two women in less luxuriously ornamented coffins. The inscription on Henut-Wedjebu’s coffin refers to her as “Mistress of the House” and “Chantress of Amen.” The exact meaning of her titles is unclear, but they do probably connote aristocratic standing, which is further supported by the elaborate decoration on her coffin.[1] The anthropoid, or human-shaped, coffin is adorned with black bitumen and gold-leaf, as well as inlaid glass. It has generated scholarly interest as a rare surviving example of ornate anthropoid coffins from the reign of Amenhotep III.[2]

Pet-Menekh, whose name means “He whom the excellent one has given,” lived in the third or fourth century BC.  He died in his 30s or 40s. Inscriptions on his coffin name him as a Priest of the God Chem, although there is little evidence to corroborate his occupation as priest. He was buried at Panopolis, a city in Upper Egypt now known as Akhmim. Robert Ritner, a professor at the University of Chicago, posited in an unpublished paper from about 1987, titled “New Kingdom Royal Sarcophagi Texts on a Private Coffin,” that Pet-Menekh’s coffin was likely excavated in 1885 by the Egyptian Antiquities Service. Texts adapted from inscriptions on royal coffins, excerpts from the Book of the Dead, and traditional funeral prayers decorate his coffin.

Curators and radiologists examine the mummy of Pet-Menekh on Sunday, Oct. 12, at Washington University Medical Center. From left are Lisa Çakmak, PhD, assistant curator of ancient art at Saint Louis Art Museum; Karen K. Butler, PhD, associate curator of Washington University’s Mildred Lane Kemper Art Museum; Sanjeev Bhalla, MD, professor of radiology and chief of cardiothoracic imaging at the School of Medicine; and Vincent Mellnick, MD, a Washington University radiologist. Pet-Menekh was scanned in a computerized tomography (CT) scanner at the medical center.

Curators and radiologists examine the mummy of Pet-Menekh on Sunday, Oct. 12, at Washington University Medical Center. From left are Lisa Çakmak, PhD, assistant curator of ancient art at Saint Louis Art Museum; Karen K. Butler, PhD, associate curator of Washington University’s Mildred Lane Kemper Art Museum; Sanjeev Bhalla, MD, professor of radiology and chief of cardiothoracic imaging at the School of Medicine; and Vincent Mellnick, MD, a Washington University radiologist. Pet-Menekh was scanned in a computerized tomography (CT) scanner at the medical center.

While there have been previous examinations of both mummies using x-ray, CT scan, paint sampling, and analysis of other materials used in the coffins and mummification process, the recent CT scans have already revealed that Henut-Wedjebu still has lungs, which were normally removed during mummification. Stay tuned for a full report, which will be available in December!

By Allison Fricke, assistant educator (Monday, November 3, 2014)

[1] Capel, Anne K. and Glenn E. Markoe, Mistress of the House, Mistress of Heaven: Women in Ancient Egypt(New York: Hudson Hills Press, 1996), 168-9.

[2] Kozloff, Arielle P. and Betsy M. Bryan, Egypt’s Dazzling Sun: Amenhotep III and His World (Cleveland: Cleveland Museum of Art, 1992), 312-17.

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