A day at the British Museum’s mummy store

Written by | May 20, 2014 | 0

London: Bandaged bodies on shelves. A loose wrapping, perhaps about to uncoil further as the corpse within awoke from its 3,000-year sleep. Most of all, the painted face of a young man gazing untiringly into darkness as the curator turned out the lights and firmly locked the door.

Hidden in the heart of the British Museum, deep within a labyrinth of research departments the public never sees, is a secret world of the dead. This museum, whose collections blossomed in the age of empire when Egypt was under British control, owns more than 100 mummies. Many are on permanent display. Eight were taken to hospital to undergo CT scans for the museum’s revelatory new exhibition Ancient Lives. Others lie here, on wooden pallets, layered one over the other, in London’s most enigmatic morgue.

The room doesn’t need to be especially cold the mummies were embalmed millennia ago, their brains and organs removed to prevent internal decay but it does have a carefully regulated temperature that suits the fragile dead. Their casings, too, are organic and need care: linen wrappings, wooden coffins. One of the coffins dates from about 3,000BC — older than the pyramids — and is just a timber crate. Later ones are painted in styles from Old Kingdom to Roman, laden with hieroglyphic spells.

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