The Oldest Mummy in the New World

After a century-long hibernation in storage, Emory's Old Kingdom mummy stars in Life and Death in the Pyramid Age at the Michael C. Carlos Museum.

By Peter Lacovara

Everyone who has studied ancient Egyptian history is familiar with the inscription of Weni the Elder, which dates back to the end of the Old Kingdom more than 4,000 years ago. The inscription, carved on a limestone slab, describes Weni’s service under three kings, culminating in his appointment as governor of Upper Egypt. It was excavated from his tomb in the Abydos Middle Cemetery in 1860 by French archeologist Auguste Mariette. Unfortunately, in his haste to find objects to fill the new national museum in Cairo, Mariette neglected to record the find spot of the inscription, and the location of Weni’s tomb was lost.

The mystery took more than a century to solve. After an initial survey in 1995, the University of Michigan Abydos Middle Cemetery Project conducted an intensive topographic, ceramic, and architectural survey in an area where many experts suspected Weni was buried. As a member of a small followup team led by Michigan archeologist Janet Richards in 1996, I took charge of the ceramic and architectural components of the survey. Through tracing the remains of mud brick architecture and examining potsherds on the ground to determine dates, we were able to identify a likely spot where there was a great concentration of Old Kingdom fine wares—and the outlines of what appeared to be a very large mastaba tomb.

Hidden chamber

Our survey, combined with a study of Mariette’s finds from the site, encouraged the Michigan team to return to Abydos three years later. During the course of several excavation seasons, the Michigan team discovered a number of tombs in the area, including those of a prince and of a chief priest named Idy, which became the focus of a large complex of subsidiary monuments constructed in the late Old Kingdom, the First Intermediate Period, the Middle Kingdom, and the Late Period. North of Idy’s complex was an even larger structure, and it was here in 1999 that the expedition found the long-lost tomb of Weni the Elder.

The fragile object, more than 4,000 years old, did not fare well. At some point during its many moves, the coffin, except for the bottom board the mummy was resting on, was discarded. Recent examinations revealed the mummy to be in a dreadful state: the hands and feet had deteriorated into scatters of small bones; one arm had fallen from its socket; and the skull, minus its jaw, was detached and unwrapped. Despite its poor condition, it is an extremely important artifact, dating back to the same time period as Weni’s tomb—around 2300 B.C.—which makes it the oldest true Egyptian mummy in North America. 

A new afterlife

For many decades, the mummy remained forgotten in a crate, but its rarity compelled us to make it accessible to scholars and museum visitors. The Michael C. Carlos Museum’s chief conservator, Renee Stein, enlisted a number of specialists to assist with the daunting process of restoration. With the aid of Emory Hospital’s radiology department, the mummy was X-rayed and CT-scanned to determine the body’s condition better and to glean further information. The mummy, it was revealed, was that of a young man who appeared to have enjoyed a healthy diet and a fairly easy, if short, life.

Before the restoration could begin, there were questions that could be answered only by going back to Abydos and re-examining other mummified remains found by the Michigan expedition in the Middle Cemetery. Last year, in the midst of the revolutionary uprising in Cairo, I once again joined Richards and her team from Michigan’s Kelsey Museum of Archaeology for a study season looking at the finds from the tomb of Weni and other late Old Kingdom burials. Although the tombs had been extensively robbed in antiquity and early modern times, large quantities of mummy wrappings had been left behind by looters, which gave us valuable clues as to how the hands, head, and other features of these Abydos Old Kingdom mummies must have appeared. 

Armed with this comparative knowledge, the restoration of the Emory mummy was completed, and the results of these efforts were the focus of a fall 2011 exhibition at the Carlos Museum titled Life and Death in the Pyramid Age: The Emory Old Kingdom Mummy. Visitors will have another chance to see this 4,000-year-old mummy next year, when it will be installed in the permanent collection galleries.

Excavations revealed it to be a massive enclosure built of unbaked mud bricks 95 feet on each side, 10 feet thick, and more than 16 feet high, with burial shafts inside. Inscribed limestone relief fragments bearing the name “Weni the Elder” and the title “True Governor of Upper Egypt” were found in the debris.

The top half of a relief showing Weni himself had been brought to the Egyptian Museum in Cairo more than a century ago; the Michigan team found the bottom half of this relief still in position on the doorway leading into the mastaba chapel. And although the tomb had been looted in antiquity, reused in later periods of ancient Egyptian history, exposed to the elements for thousands of years, and dug up roughly by Mariette’s men, the Michigan excavation miraculously found the remains of a serdab, or hidden chamber. In it were the remains of more than 30 wooden bases for statues along with other fragments. The best preserved and most significant of all of these was a beautifully carved limestone statuette of the tomb owner as a young boy, identified by an inscription on its base as Weni.

From Cairo to Atlanta

Coincidentally, more than 80 years before the Michigan excavations, decayed mud brick from the eastern end of the site was being quarried away as crop fertilizer by local inhabitants, and some tombs belonging to the cemetery appear to have been discovered and destroyed. It was just at this time that Emory theology professor William Arthur Shelton happened to visit Abydos on a collecting trip. He was looking for an early mummy to enhance the curriculum of Emory’s theology school. In 1920, he purchased a mummy from the site, had it packed with cotton wool, and sent it to Cairo, then on to Alexandria, and then by ship to Georgia.

Peter Lacovara is senior curator of ancient Egyptian, Nubian, and Near Eastern art at the Carlos Museum.

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