When most people think of mummies they usually think of ancient Egyptians, yet mummies come from all over the world. In fact, mummies have been discovered on every continent. The ancient Egyptian form of mummification remains the most popular, but as Dr. Heather Gill-Frerking, who studies the process and is curator of the "Mummies of the World" exhibit at Cincinnati Museum Center, says, "that’s because the Egyptians were great publicists." Deliberate mummification, however, was and is a feature of several cultures in areas of South America and Asia.
The Mummies of the World Touring Company’s overall goal for the exhibition, which runs through April 26 at the Cincinnati Musuem Center, is "to advance the relevance of anthropology in ancient global cultures and to provide visitors with an educational and scientific window into the cultures, history and lives of the people who came before us."
Dr. Gill-Frerking has been researching mummies for about 20 years and has worked with mummies from all over the world. Her passion for research and education of the science and history of mummification is remarkable. As for the "Mummies of the World," she says, "the exhibition is not static. Our research is ongoing. We are serious researchers who write academic papers and conduct conferences. We feel the need to share this with the public."
The official website of "Mummies of the World" offers this succinct description of the exhibit: "‘Mummies of the World’ is one of the largest exhibitions of mummies and related artifacts ever assembled. This groundbreaking exhibition bridges the gap between past and present, showing how science can shed light on history, the study of medicine and cultures around the world. Featuring a never-before-seen collection of objects and specimens, including real human and animal mummies and related artifacts from South America, Europe and Egypt, ‘Mummies of the World’ also demonstrates that mummification – both through natural and intentional processes – has taken place all over the globe, from the hot desert sands of South America to remote European bogs."
The exhibit is divided into two parts: natural and artificial mum- mification. Natural, or spontaneous, mummification is an uninten- tional process resulting from natural conditions such as extreme dry heat or cold environments, or oxygen-absent conditions such as those found in bogs or swamps. Unnatural, or anthropogenic, mummifica- tion is a deliberate process created by societies for a variety of reasons, but most commonly for religious purposes.
In the natural mummification section, Dr. Gill-Frerking shares what mummy scientists want to see from the exhibit. "What I hope happens with the exhibition is that people start to see the mummies as people because we tell their story." She points to a small mummy. "We know that this mummy was a child who died when she was about 2 years old. We know that she was a girl. We can start to tell her story."
Dr. Gill-Frerking respects mummies as people. "If we are doing these exhibitions we need to be respectful. And the only reason to do them is to share their stories. We don’t want to exploit these people."
As for the process of reconstructing these stories, "we integrate archeological, biological and cultural material to figure out how to make the story," Dr. Gill-Frerking says. "We never know exactly who they were, but we can see a snapshot."
That is no small feat as a variety of scientists and researchers work collaboratively in order to reconstruct the stories the mummies tell.
Why all the effort? The stories of the past provide insight into our recent history and present circumstances. "You’ll see a number of infants as you go through the exhibition," Dr. Gill-Frerking says. "It’s a good opportunity to talk about the fact that we are very lucky that our children live to be adults. In the past, child mortality was much higher. We have better nutrition, better prenatal care and medical care, so our children live longer. This exhibition is a strong reminder of how fortunate we are today."
Dr. Gill-Frerking stops at her favorite type of natural mummy, the bog mummy. Only 55 bog mummies remain in the world since peat mining has destroyed many of them. One might wonder how mummies can form in wet environments. After all, dry conditions are crucial to the preservation of flesh. Yet, as Dr. Gill-Frerking explains, the bodies have been preserved in the peat below the water line where no moisture or oxygen exists.
The bog environment represents one of the most natural ways to preserve a body. "I want people to know that there are lots of natural ways to make mummies," Dr. Gill-Frerking says. "When you put a steak in the freezer, you’re making a mummy. When you make beef jerky, you’re making a mummy. The same process is used to make mummies."
Dr. Gill-Frerking explains the significance of mummy research and exhibition. "The joy of archeology is to understand the culture that helps us understand our culture."
She tells how Jivaroan tribes of northwestern region of the Amazon rainforest developed a thriving industry around the demand for shrunken heads as travel mementos. The demand became so great that young boys were taught to hunt sloth and shrink its body in order to prepare them for human head shrinking. The mummified shrunken heads help tell this story.
Pointing to a mummified elongated skull, she tells how some South American cultures believed a long, narrow skull was a sign of beauty, so they used bands and straps to make it longer. The mummified skull helps tell this story, too.
In a room filled with a domestic family of mummies from the crypt of a Dominican church in Vác, Hungary, from the 1729-1838 period, Dr. Gill-Frerking explains the scientific and medical significance of the crypt. Because of carefully recorded documents, "we know about 60 percent of the people from this crypt suffered from tuberculosis," she says.
With the information collected from these mummies and others that indicate tuberculosis, "Scientists can study the pathogens of bacteria to understand where it has been and where it will go in order to treat modern day occurrences." Contributions like this are significant to the modern scientific family.
Dr. Gill-Frerking ends the tour by summing up the value of the exhibit. "Each mummy has an individual story, who they were. It really makes a difference. They are people, then we begin to see pieces of ourselves in them. That is really what is great about this exhibition."
The "Mummies of the World" exhibit runs through April 26 at Cincinnati Museum Center, 1301 Western Avenue, Cincinnati, OH 45203. You can reach them at 513.287.7000, by email at firstname.lastname@example.org or visit their website at www.cincymuseum.org.
For more information on Dr. Heather Gill-Frerking and her mummy research, visit her Facebook page at www.facebook. com/DrHeatherMummyResearcher.