October 28, 2010

Mummies give amazing glimpse into past

Posted in Between Us column, Spirituality, Travel at 3:23 am by dinaheng

Many people think of mummies as scary creatures in horror movies, or funny costumed characters that come out at Halloween, but when you walk among real mummies, life and death take on a whole different meaning.

“Mummies of the World,” the largest traveling exhibition of mummies and related artifacts ever assembled, is now on view at the California Science Center in Los Angeles, sharing an intimate look at both naturally and intentionally preserved mummies from various cultures until November 28.

Twenty one museums provided mummies for the exhibit, curated by the Reiss-Englehorn Museums of Mannheim, Germany in association with American Exhibitions, Inc.

“People are fascinated by mummies because they’re such an anomaly,” says Diane Perlov, senior vice president for exhibits at the California Science Center. “Why did they survive, and other things decomposed? People can see themselves in these human mummies.”

Perlov explains that mummification happens everywhere, even in Antarctica, from the ancient past to current times. Natural mummification can happen in caves, ice, bogs, wherever the environment stops decomposition after death.

In ancient Egypt, mummies were intentionally preserved as a way to reach the Afterlife. Listening to the process is not for the faint of heart. In short, embalmers would cut the body open on the left side, take out the organs, and place them in special jars in the tomb. They’d put a hook through the nose, take out the brain, and leave in the heart.

In the Egyptian Book of the Dead, which was buried with the mummy, it says that when you die, the soul leaves the body, but you have to pass gatekeepers and overcome challenges to get into the Afterlife. In the end, your heart is weighed against the Feather of Truth.

“If your heart is too heavy, it’s devoured by a creature, and you don’t go to the Afterlife,” Perlov explains. “It’s very reassuring, in a sense. You do the right thing, and you’ll get to the Afterlife.”

After all, when our hearts feel heavy in real life, they’re telling us that we’re not doing the right thing. We, after all, are the only ones who can really know whether we’re upholding our values or not.

In South America, mummies were buried upright in a sitting position, and were naturally mummified by the environment. These figures look particularly eerie, as they are not lying down in peaceful repose.

The oldest mummy in the exhibit is a 6,500 year old child, thought to be about 8 months old at death, who was buried in a crouched position. The figure is 3,000 years older than King Tut, and we can only wonder what life was like back then.

Many of the figures look like petrified wood. The hair on some heads and the teeth seem perfectly preserved. In one display, a South American woman holds the mummified bodies of two children, one of which was placed with her 100 years after the boy’s death. Why was that done? Was she thought to be a special guardian of children, or a long-dead relative?

“Doing the scientific analysis on the mummies answers some questions, but raises others,” Perlov says.

That, I suppose, is just part of the mystery of life… and death.




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