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Mummies parade into museum

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The dead are coming to Baltimore.

Not, unfortunately, the Grateful kind, or the living kind that seem to be all the rage these days. Instead, the dead arriving in Baltimore are genuinely dead — 45 human and animal mummies that will be taking up residence at the Maryland Science Center through Jan. 20.

"Mummies of the World" is an unprecedented traveling exhibition of mummies and mummy-related artifacts that has been setting up at museums and science centers throughout North America since July 2010; never before have so many mummies from so many parts of the world been brought together in one place. Baltimore is the ninth and final stop in its tour.

"This is a really unusual collection of mummies," says Heather Gill-Frerking, director of science and education for the exhibition, who has been studying mummies for some 20 years. "This exhibit tells the whole story of mummies and mummification; even museums that have attempted to do something like this have never had this sort of range. As a mummy person, I've never had a chance to work with such a variety of mummies, certainly not in one grouping."

One of the first things visitors to the exhibit will realize is that mummies are not only Egyptian, despite what generations of Hollywood horror movies (thank you, Boris Karloff) might suggest. In fact, only about a third of "Mummies of the World" comes from that ancient culture. Others are from Asia, South America and Europe — everything from a 6,500-year-old Peruvian child to a 100-year-old naturally preserved rat found in a German attic. The only requirement for a mummy is that some soft tissue, such as hair, skin or muscle, must remain on the body. Intent doesn't always enter into the equation.

"I love being able to bust the myth that all mummies are Egyptian," Gill-Frerking says. "The Egyptians weren't even the first ones to do it. We're talking about cultures in South America that were actively mummifying the dead some 6,000 years ago."

The Egyptians, however, left behind written records, unlike their even-more-ancient South American counterparts. "The Egyptians have really good press," is how Gill-Frerking puts it. "That's what people are familiar with. We know so much about how the Egyptians did things, why they did things. A lot of the other cultures, we don't necessarily understand … we're still trying to figure this out."

We know the Egyptians, thanks to the records they left behind, preserved their honored dead using rituals and embalming techniques that have fascinated archaeologists for centuries. But most of the bodies going on exhibit at the science center were mummified by accident, preserved through a coincidental mix of climate and the conditions under which they were buried. Accidental mummies (as opposed to intentional or artificial mummies) can be found in bogs, caves, deserts, even salt deposits; one of the exhibit's oddest specimens is a mummified boxfish, preserved in salt.

"More mummies are made by nature than are actually made by humans," Gill-Frerking says. "It's a really big thing for most people to grasp. The environment, in some cases, plays a bigger role in mummification than people do.

"Anything that's got preserved stuff on it," she notes, "that's a mummy."

Predictably, however, the first mummy science center visitors will encounter is Egyptian: the body of a child, dating back to about 20 B.C. Hieroglyphs on the sarcophagus containing the body speak of the god Osiris, and one sentence fragment has been translated to "words to be spoken by." That phrase makes perfect sense, given that Egyptian tombs often contained objects and even written instructions — the famed "Egyptian Book of the Dead" — on how to live on the other side.

Wandering through the exhibit's five rooms leads visitors on a tour that spans ages, continents, even lifestyles. Just steps from the carefully embalmed and elaborately decorated Egyptians, all carefully stretched out, lie their older South American counterparts, often buried in crouching positions, or with their legs crossed. One woman was found buried with two children — presumably her own, although it's impossible to say for sure — their bodies entwined in such a way that the three almost seem as one.

But it's a set of far more contemporary mummies — if one can call 300 years ago contemporary — that emerge as stars of the exhibit. Preserved remains of the Orlovits family — Michael, Veronica and their year-old son, Johannes — were recovered from the long-forgotten crypt of a Hungarian church, found while workers were ripping up floorboards. Dressed in reproductions of the burial garments in which they were discovered — the originals are too fragile to be displayed — they offer unexpected access and insights to a time and culture not that far removed from our own.

chris.kaltenbach@baltsun.com

If you go

"Mummies of the World" will be on exhibit Saturday through Jan. 20 at the Maryland Science Center, 601 Light St. Hours are 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Monday-Friday, 10 a.m.-6 p.m. Saturday and 11 a.m.-5 p.m. Sunday. Tickets to the exhibition run $10-$14 for science center members, $18-$24 for the general public; children 2 and younger enter free. Information: 410-685-5225 or mdsci.org.

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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