This day of archaeology is somewhat typical for me. I specialize in the analysis of human and animal bones (humans are animals after all). Today’s work involves taking a look at an Egyptian mummy and packing up approximately 2,000 animal bones for shipment.
Mummies are a relatively common component of art museum collections. Back in the late 1800s and early 1900s, museums built their artifact collections by buying objects with little concern over how they were acquired by dealers. Mummies and their sarcophagi (cases) could be purchased individually or as a pair. Ethics have greatly changed since then and such transactions are now rare.
The mummy I went to see is in storage at the Vassar art museum. My goal was not to conduct any scientific study of the mummy, it was simply to evaluate the potential to use it as part of my introductory archaeology course in the fall. The mummy is in very good condition, which means that anyone expecting to clearly see an arm, leg, or face will be disappointed. This will allow my class to discuss where their fascination with archaeology lies – do they simply want to see something that is macabre or do they have a genuine interest in understanding the past? For those with a genuine interest, this mummy presents a challenge in that it is both easy and difficult to learn more about it.
A simple Google search will produce several different stories about the mummy, each coming from what seems to be a reputable source. This is one of the greatest challenges archaeology professors face – how do we teach our students to search for the best answer since there is often no single right answer about the past. For example, one Vassar source says the mummy is Swty-Hetep, a priestess of Isis from 200 BC. Another Vassar source says the mummy is Shep-en-Min, the son of a chantress who died in his late teens around 600 BCE. A third Vassar source says the mummy is Shep-en-min who was a priest involved in rituals for the god Min. His age is placed at 25 to 30 years old and cause of death may have been a fracture of his right leg. The more recent analyses of the mummy are likely more reliable than the older ones as technology has allowed researchers to look under the wraps without unwrapping him. A video showing how this was done can be found on YouTube and a newspaper article is at the local newspaper site.
As a North American archaeologist I have no special expertise in mummy analysis nor do I have a great interest in mummies. But students and most non-archaeologists expect me to talk about mummies so I do. I am more interested in understanding the past of people who lived in the same places that my students and I live.
Currently, I am finishing up a report on animal bones recovered from sites in Nevada. As a faunal analyst, other archaeologists send the bones they recover to me for specialized study. I identify the bones and then interpret them and mail them back along with a report.
These bones are helping those who excavated the site to understand what some stone circles or rock rings were used for. As with the mummy, there are various ways of interpreting these features and additional data helps to create a more reliable interpretation. In archaeology we are always refining our understanding of the past using new tools. Some are high tech like CT scans. Others are low tech like using the complete skeletons of known animals to identify tiny fragments of animal bones recovered during excavation.