By William Sweet
In 1905, Amherst acquired a preserved human body. No one knows where it went.
[Artifacts] The Mead’s mummy is missing.
In truth, the 2,600-year-old mummy case has likely been empty for the entire 65 years that the Mead Art Museum has existed. But apparently it once contained a preserved human body.
As the museum staff researches the case and prepares to restore it for display, it would like to know what happened to the body, too.
Records indicate that in 1905, Amherst acquired an ancient Egyptian mummy case, the lid for a different mummy case and an actual mummy. There appear to be no records of where these items were kept or where the mummy went. No records, just stories.
Conservator Erin Toomey examined the case and lid: “The paintings on the side are in incredible shape.”
Photos by Rob Mattson
Stephen S. Fisher, the Mead’s collections manager, heard it was stolen. “All I know,” he says, “is that it has never been found.”
Here’s what else we know: According to the Mead’s accession card, the case is for a woman embalmed in Abydos about 650 B.C., and the lid is for the coffin of a priest interred during the same era, Egypt’s 26th Dynasty. Both artifacts are decorated with hieroglyphics, including some in praise of Osiris, the Egyptian god of the afterlife.
The artifacts were donated to the college by Stephen Holmes Weeks, dean of the medical school at Bowdoin, after he received an honorary doctorate from Amherst in 1905. The Amherst trustees endorsed a resolution in 1906 to thank Weeks “for the valuable gift of a mummy.” A June 1906 article in The Student mentions a mummy as well, noting that it was procured from the Cairo Museum.
“It baffles me that such a gift would be so unremarked upon,” says Amherst College Archivist Peter Nelson, who unearthed the early references to the mummy.
Weeks had no apparent prior connection to Amherst. His 1909 New York Times obituary says he had a national reputation as an expert on anatomy and was known for his work on tuberculosis.
The Mead’s new conservation project might bring the case and lid out of storage and on display. Erin Toomey, a Brooklyn-based conservator, recently examined the objects, and Joyce Haynes, an Egyptologist, has been approached to look at the hieroglyphics.
The fact that the artifacts seem to have generated little interest in years past may have helped preserve them, as some past practices aimed at restoring ancient artifacts can compromise them.
While the fate of the mummy may remain a mystery, Mead senior curator Bettina Jungen hopes the hieroglyphics have their own story to tell. “We will know much more,” she says, “after it has been translated and put into context.”