Ancient lives, new discoveries

22 May — 30 Nov 2014 at the British Museum in London, United Kingdom

10 APRIL 2014
Linenman skull. The CT scan of the skull of the mummy of an adult man (name unknown). The scan shows considerable evidence of dental abbcesses and the loss of several teeth. © Trustees of the British Museum
Linenman skull. The CT scan of the skull of the mummy of an adult man (name unknown). The scan shows considerable evidence of dental abbcesses and the loss of several teeth. © Trustees of the British Museum

The British Museum has always sought new ways to explore its collection, using the latest scientific techniques to shed new light on ancient cultures. This May new research on one of the most-popular areas of the collection – ancient Egyptian and Sudanese human remains or ‘mummies’- will be revealed through a ground-breaking interactive exhibition ‘Ancient lives, new discoveries’. Sponsored by Julius Baer with support from our technology partner Samsung, the exhibition uses state-of-the-art technology to allow visitors to delve inside mummy cases and examine the bodies underneath the wrappings, bringing us face to face with eight people who lived in the Nile Valley thousands of years ago. The exhibition will open on 22nd May and run until 30th November 2014.

The Museum is known for its innovative research and use of cutting-edge visualisation in this field. The first mummy entered the Museum’s collection in 1756, but for the past 200 years none of the mummies have been unwrapped, so technology has been critical to improving our understanding of how ancient cultures developed. A full x-ray survey of the mummies in the 1960s was followed in the 1990s by the use of CT scanners

Now innovative advances in medical science and engineering technology can be applied to the study of ancient human remains. The most recent scans undertaken have used the new generation of medical CT scanners, capable of producing data of unprecedented high resolution. The transformation of this data into 3D visualisations has been achieved with volume graphics software originally designed for car engineering. Visitors will be able to view and interact with this data and to understand details of the lives of these individuals.

The exhibition will be structured around eight mummies which have been the focus of recent scientific investigation. Visitors will encounter each mummy with accompanying large-screen visualisations which journey into the body, through the skin to reveal organs, skeleton and the secrets of mummification.

The mummies selected cover a period of over 4000 years, from the Predynastic period to the Christian era, from sites in Egypt and the Sudan. The emphasis will be on revealing different aspects of living and dying in the ancient Nile Valley through these eight individuals and also through other contextual objects from the collection such as amulets, canopic jars, musical instruments and items of food. Mummification was used by people at different levels of society and was not just the preserve of Pharaohs.

Today we reveal details of two of the mummies which will feature in the exhibition. In an adult male from Thebes mummified in c600BC, the CT data reveals details of the process that has been applied to preserve the body – the brain and the internal organs have partially been removed, and the soft tissues are in good condition. A specially designed visualisation will show the man’s head on three sides of a large cube, including the spatula used to remove the brain, which his embalmer left lodged within his skull. A replica of his lower mandible will show multiple dental abscesses which must have caused him considerable pain during his lifetime.

The exhibition will also feature a female singer called ‘Tamut’ , who lived in Thebes in c900BC.,Her body reflects the highest level of mummification available at this period. This elite burial involved placing of amulets and other magical trappings on the body. An interactive digital visualisation and 3D prints will allow visitors to examine these ritual objects. A study of the scans reveals she suffered from extensive plaque in her arteries which could have contributed to
her death.

Neil MacGregor, Director of the British Museum said: “This new technology is truly ground-breaking, allowing us to reconstruct and understand the lives of these eight, very different, individuals. This is a project which has only been made possible through recent technological advances and I am delighted that the Musuem is at the forefront of this kind of research and presentation. I am hugely grateful to both Julius Baer and to Samsung for enabling us to mount such an ambitious and important exhibition”.

Adam Horowitz, Head of United Kingdom Domestic, Julius Baer International Limited, said: “Continuing our long tradition as a supporter of arts and culture, Julius Baer is proud to extend its partnership with the British Museum to sponsor the exhibition ‘Ancient lives, new discoveries’. As the leading private banking group in Switzerland, which incorporates a large footprint in the UK, we value this opportunity to share in such a significant cross-cultural experience, which features innovative research and cutting-edge visualisation, and also to underline our local commitment.”

Andy Griffiths, President, Samsung UK & Ireland, said: "Samsung is thrilled that the partnership with the British Museum has been shortlisted for this prestigious award. This exciting partnership and the Samsung Digital Discovery Centre at the British Museum, is part of our wider Digital Classroom initiative, which inspires young people to unlock their learning potential through the use of technology. The British Museum has been at the forefront of innovating digital learning and we are excited to see where the future will take us."