In the wake of a controversial journey to include Chinese mummies in its “Secrets of the Silk Road” exhibit, the Penn Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology hosted a group of scholars who attempted to unravel the mummies’ histories.
The discussion Saturday — part of a symposium titled “The Anatomy of the Mummy” — celebrated the ongoing exhibit, which features Chinese mummies and other artifacts almost pulled from the museum per the request of the Chinese government.
Five scholars in the field discussed topics ranging from studying the mummification process using radiology to helping preserve mummification in modern-day culture.
Not many tests or examinations have been done on the Chinese mummies, said panelist and Anthropology graduate student Samantha Cox, “but they seem to be natural mummies,” and were most likely preserved through freeze-drying during winters when temperatures could reach negative 30 degrees.
The speakers also noted that the Chinese government may have had political reasons for hesitating to send the mummies to Penn, as many cultures prefer to preserve some secrecy about their mummies — noting Egypt’s wariness to share King Tutankhamen as an example.
“Mummies have been, through the ages, objects of political intrigue. There is that potential that some [political motivation] exists,” Quinnipiac University professor Ronald Beckett said.
Beckett also spoke about his time in Papua New Guinea where he worked with a village “that wants to continue mummification of the dead and rekindle the practice of mummification.”
Cox and Andrew Wade, a doctoral student at the University of Western Ontario, both discussed the use of radiology and modern technology to examine mummies.
“In my field of research, I talk about pulling peoples’ brains out through their nose,” Wade said.
University of Maryland professor Ronn Wade also joked about the perception of those who work with mummies. “We mummy people are a strange lot,” he said, recounting his childhood growing up in a funeral home.
The event, which gained additional attention due to the conflict with the mummies, attracted students as well as anthropology scholars.
“I thought the topic was really interesting right now with all that’s currently happening with the exhibit,” said College and Wharton sophomore Stanley Lim, who is a student in panel moderator Janet Monge’s class. Monge is a Penn Anthropology professor and an acting curator at the museum.
“It was very accessible and all the professors made it easy to understand,” Bryn Mawr College senior Alexis Egansaid.