For decades, a curious dense object on the head of one of the best preserved mummies in the British Museum was thought to be a bundle of preserved placenta belonging to its owner, Nesperennub, a temple priest.
But the speculation could not be confirmed based on conventional X-rays made of the fully wrapped mummy in the 1960s.
The mystery was finally resolved after the 3,000-year-old mummy was re-examined in the last decade using cutting-edge scanning technology, which produced sharper images of the body under the coffin and layers of wrapping.
This and other secrets surrounding the life and death of Nesperennub is the focus of the exhibition, Mummy: Secrets Of The Tomb. It debuts at the ArtScience Museum at Marina Bay Sands next month and will run until the second half of this year.
The exhibition features more than 100 artefacts and six mummies from the British Museum, which is famed for its fine ancient Egyptian collection. The show has travelled to countries such as the United States, Australia and India and it has drawn almost 1.5 million visitors.
The ArtScience Museum’s executive director Nick Dixon, 51, says the exhibition “reflects the intersection between art and science”.
The show pairs “some of the most stunning pieces” of ancient Egyptian artefacts with “the latest in modern technology and medical science” to shed light on the rituals and processes of mummification.
A highlight is a 3-D film that captures the virtual unwrapping of Nesperennub, based on sophisticated scans made of it.
The experience allows the viewer to feel as if he is personally exploring the mummy, says the British Museum’s assistant keeper in the department of ancient Egypt and Sudan, Mr John Taylor, in an e-mail interview.
He adds that mummies in museums are no longer physically unwrapped because it is a destructive, irreversible process.
The exhibition will not be the first time that Egyptian artefacts from the British Museum go on show here. In 1999, the Asian Civilisations Museum hosted the exhibition Eternal Egypt: Treasures From The British Museum, which drew 102,000 visitors.
However, Mr Taylor, 65, tells Life!: “Eternal Egypt was a selection of highlights from the British Museum’s collections, including objects from all periods of Egyptian history and of many different types.
“The present exhibition is more tightly focused on the world of the priests and the cult of the dead, besides acting as a showcase for the forward-looking technology which archaeologists and historians are using to reconstruct the life of past societies.”
Indeed, scans of Nesperennub made it possible to identify amulets and other trappings on the mummy and provide “new insights into the magical function and significance of such objects”, says Mr Taylor.
Clearer images of the mummy’s skull, teeth and bones also allowed researchers to digitally reconstruct his face and make precise assessments about his state of health and age at death.
To complement Nesperennub’s story, artefacts such as ritual temple vessels and offering tables are included to reflect aspects of the life of a priest in those times. There is also a mummy of Tjayasetimu, a singer in the temple of the Egyptian god, Amun.
Other exhibits such as statuettes of the Egyptian gods Amun-Ra, king of the gods, and Seth, who represents forces of chaos and disorder, explain the religious beliefs that underpinned ancient Egyptian funerary practices.
Visitors to the show can also participate in hands-on activities such as an interactive workshop on ancient Egyptian embalming practices and specially designed puzzles and games for children.
As for the secret object on top of Nesperennub’s head, it was not preserved placenta as initially thought. Mr Taylor says: “It turned out to be a clay bowl, which probably became accidentally glued to the head by solidified resin during mummification.”
This article was first run in The Straits Times newspaper on March 12, 2013. For similar stories, go to sph.straitstimes.com/premium/singapore. You will not be able to access the Premium section of The Straits Times website unless you are already a subscriber. All images courtesy of The Trustees of the British Museum.