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Wrapped for another day... or millennium

Updated on: Mar 10, 2017
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Kolkata’s Indian museum is restoring a 4,000-year-old mummy in its Egyptian gallery with the help of a team that recently gave an even older denizen in Hyderabad a fresh lease of life

It’s a sunny Monday in Kolkata. The Indian Museum — the country’s largest and oldest — is buzzing. Groups of excited schoolchildren navigate the long corridors flanked by tall columns. Tourists, couples, and families with kids wander around, peering at the exhibits. The most crowded is the exhibit hall for Egyptian artefacts. In the centre of this rather dark room, school kids huddle around a long glass case containing a mummy, which appears fragile. The flesh of the face and head has crumbled, exposing the bones. The face mask has been removed and placed on the chest.

One of the six mummies housed in India, it was a gift to the Asiatic Society of Bengal from a British officer, Lieutenant of the Light Cavalry of Bengal EC Archbold, in 1834. The Journal of the Asiatic Society of Bengal mentions that the society noted in its minutes that this mummy was obtained with some difficulty “from the royal tombs at Gourvah”. Here, ‘Gourvah’ appears to be a wrong spelling of Gourna, on the western bank of the Nile at Luxor, Egypt. The transporting ship’s crew apparently objected to having a ‘corpse’ on board.

Now in its Kolkata resting place, this 4,000-year-old mummy is set to be restored under a collaborative project between Lucknow’s National Research Laboratory For Conservation Of Cultural Property and Mumbai’s Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Vastu Sangrahalaya (previously Prince of Wales Museum). The entire Egyptian gallery, in fact, will get a facelift.

The mummy’s condition has been a cause for concern for some years now. A June 2014 report in National Geographic Voices, titled ‘A Mummy Rots in Kolkata’, had asked, “Is this any way to treat a guest?” Other media reports had pointed to faulty air-conditioners in the Egyptian gallery. Minister of state for external affairs MJ Akbar visited the gallery in the wake of these reports and queried the authorities about the amenities. The museum officials, however, insist that the mummy rests in an insulated cabinet that has a micro-climate of its own. It is in no way exposed to the atmosphere.

Until 1989, the mummy was displayed in the archaeology gallery, which did not have air-conditioning, but it has since been preserved in an air-conditioned, temperature-controlled space, says Satyakam Sen, senior technical assistant (archaeology) of Indian Museum. He adds that Dr BV Kharbade, director of Lucknow’s National Research Laboratory for Conservation of Cultural Property had examined the mummy in 2014. “He found it almost in the same condition as described by Sir John Anderson in the Catalogue and Hand-book of the Archaeological Collections in the Indian Museum. Moreover, Dr Kharbade added this observation: ‘the cloth wrapping though found degraded completely, torn, fallen apart, and lost at many places but found intact consistent and aesthetically good’ (sic).”

‘Hyderabad girl’ shows the way

Mumbai’s CSMVS recently helped restore a 4,500-year-old mummy at Hyderabad’s State Museum. Said to be that of Egyptian princess Nishushu, the mummy was procured in 1920 by the sixth Nizam Mir Mehboob Ali Khan. NR Visalatchy, director of Telangana’s archaeology and museums department, invited heritage conservationist Vinod Daniel of AusHeritage as an advisor and he recommended a preventive conservation plan. A team from Anupam Heritage Lab worked under Anupam Sah, an art conservator of repute.

The nine-member team took two months to complete the entire process — from inspection to replacing the case.

Over the centuries, the paint on the mummy’s cartonage had started flaking, the linen was unravelling, and the bones of the feet and head were showing through the gaps.

CAT scans revealed that the mummy was that of a girl who was slightly older than previously believed. Her rib cage was unusually distorted and her lower back was probably injured, as was an ankle. Her brain had been removed, but not completely. “We could not identify her heart, which was often dried and placed back in a mummy. Lungs, liver, stomach and so on had been removed, as was the practice. Was she mummified in a hurry, one wonders? And why? Both CAT scan and X-rays revealed dense objects within the body, and these could be protective amulets for the soul’s journey and in the afterlife,” says Sah.

One of the principles of art conservation accepted internationally is that of minimum intervention. Sah and his team decided to retain all of the mummy’s original material, and add as few external material as possible, to maintain the authenticity of this ancient relic.

“One thing we were very conscious of was that we were not treating an art object. It was a human body, and it was our duty to treat it with the utmost respect that’s accorded to a departed soul.” The team removed the surface dust and retrieved all small fragments. Dead beetles were removed with tweezers. The disturbed wrappings were documented and then readjusted carefully. The skull and toe, which were exposed, were covered with the original linen swathes. The readjusted wrapping will cushion the mummified body against climatic shocks. A fine, perforated net holds it all in place. The showcase base has been replaced newly, and an inert barrier placed between it and the mummy.

“We feel the mummy has been conserved as well as honoured. Though it may sound strange, one may venture to say, its life has been increased,” says Sah.

Anuradha Sengupta is a Kolkata-based freelance journalist and founder-editor of Jalebi Inka media collective for children youth

Published on March 10, 2018

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