Unwrapping the history of Tulane's Egyptian collection
More than 3000 years after they died and after more than a century and a half of being closely studied by accomplished archeologists, two mummies are making their public debuts at Tulane's Middle American Research Institute, located in Dinwiddie Hall.
Tulane's private collection of mummies and related Egyptian artifacts will become accessible to more students due to a storage environment upgrade. The collection had been held in storage for more than 150 years, including a brief stint in the former Tulane Stadium.
"I mean, how many universities have an Egyptian collection," Maria Ragas, a Tulane undergraduate alumna and Tulane School of Professional Advancement student said.
The paths and lives of the two mummies on campus are still being traced by Tulane faculty.
The male mummy, Djedthothiufankh, is believed to have died when he was at least 50 years old. Inscriptions in his coffin indicate that he was an Egyptian priest and oversaw the craftsmen at the Temple of Amun in Thebes.
Very little is known about the female mummy, Djedmutiusankh, other than that she died at the age of 15.
In 1852, George R. Gliddon, the former U.S. vice-consul in Cairo, toured the U.S. lecturing about ancient Egypt. Following his tour, two of his mummies, along with various other artifacts, were donated to the University of Louisiana, as Tulane University was formerly known.
For years, the collection was inaccessible to students and other interested Tulane community members. It was held in a number of locations around campus, including a room in the bleachers of the football stadium, where it remained during numerous games, including three Super Bowls.
In 2014, Maria Ragas, a Tulane undergraduate alumna and Tulane School of Professional Advancement student, along with two other students, Tulane alumni Jules Vetter and Drew Goldsberry, became interested in the mummies. After the three students were allowed to see the mummies as part of their Ancient Egyptian Religion and Magic class, taught by Department of Anthropology Research Associate Melinda Nelson-Hurst, they dedicated themselves to ensuring the mummies received the funding they needed to be properly cared for.
"We kind of thought it was a shame that they were in a closet and not being displayed or taken care of properly," Ragas said. "I mean, how many universities have an Egyptian collection?"
Marcello Canuto, director of the Middle American Research Institute, and Nelson-Hurst received a Preservation Assistance Grant for Smaller Institutions from the National Endowment for the Humanities.
"We try to cover as much of the world as we possibly can because we are interested in preserving cultural heritage, however it comes to us," Canuto said.
The grant will allow MARI to bring in a conservator to assess the storage and display conditions of the mummies. The conservator will make recommendations for upgrades and purchase environmental monitors to check the temperature, humidity and dew point where the collection is stored.
"[The Egyptian collection] gives MARI the opportunity to say 'Look at what we do.' We try to cover as much of the world as we possibly can because we are interested in preserving cultural heritage, however it comes to us," Canuto said. "So this is a great example."
After being dissected, unwrapped and brought on tour in the 1850s, Djedthothiufankh's remains are in a fragile state, exacerbated by the inconsistent temperature and humidity of New Orleans. Updating the storage system for the mummies and other artifacts is especially important to making sure the collection and mummies can remain case studies for years to come.
When the storage and display system for the Egyptian collection is sound, the mummies and artifacts will be more accessible to both Tulane students and the general public.
"Because of the collection's unique history – both ancient and modern – it can provide instructive examples for a wide variety of subjects and interests, including history of science, 19th-century American history and culture, anthropology, art history, Egyptology and, of course, the history of Tulane itself," Nelson-Hurst said.
Though the grant will eventually allow for a significant increase in access to the collection, access is currently limited to Tulane students involved in certain research projects and classes.
"I bring students from every course that I teach to see the collection in its current storage conditions," Nelson-Hurst said. "… For example, for my 'Death and Burial in Ancient Egypt' course last fall, my students conducted case studies on our male mummy …"
"I feel like the city of New Orleans, in general, is a very, very rich historical [place] – people here are eclectic, they love the history, they love architecture, they love all these treasures of the past, per se," Ragas said.
The mummies have played a long and integral role in Tulane's anthropology department. Nelson-Hurst said she believes students can gain significant insight from being academically involved with the Egyptian Collection.
"Tulanians should take pride in and an interest in the university's Egyptian collection – one of the oldest in the country, which has been at the University since before it was even called 'Tulane,'" Nelson-Hurst said. "It has so much to offer us as a window into not only the ancient past, but also our own history at Tulane and in America more broadly."
Ragas voiced a similar opinion on the importance of the mummies' history to the Tulane community.
"I feel like the city of New Orleans, in general, is a very, very rich historical [place] – people here are eclectic, they love the history, they love architecture, they love all these treasures of the past, per se," Ragas said. "So, I feel like that is one of the reasons students come here, is to experience that. To just be able to have another portion of history available, I think, is great."
If students are interested in becoming involved in research regarding archaeology and the Egyptian collection, the Middle American Research Institute offers internship and volunteer opportunities to both Tulane and Loyola students which fulfill second-tier community service requirements.
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