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Mummified Hand

Just in time for Halloween we have the mystery of the mummified hand. How did it become separated from its arm? How did such an object become part of our collection? What does the museum do with it? What kind of condition is a hand in that is likely thousands of years old?

As to the first question, the object was brought into the collection by Professor Richard Austin Rice. Rice was a professor at Williams College from 1881-1911. According to the college archives “Rice was the first professor of the History of Art and Civilization at Williams College. He amassed a variety of study materials to support the teaching of art at the College including photographs, lantern slides and original works of art, the latter of which became the nucleus of the collection in the Williams College Museum of Art.” You can read more about the professor on the web page of the Williams College Archives and Special Collections. Our records state that we have 29 objects in our collection that were acquired through his efforts with the Egypt Exploration Fund between 1881-1903. Search our collection database with “Richard Austin Rice” under the Quick Search to view all of the objects he helped bring into the collection. Unfortunately, our donor file does not go in depth very much about how exactly these objects were obtained, but the publication Ancient Egyptian Art at Yale published by the Yale University Art Gallery (1986) describes the Egypt Exploration Fund as a subscription service. The publication states “The London based Egypt Exploration Fund (now the Egypt Exploration Society) was a research organization that sponsored archeological excavations in Egypt”. “Money for these projects was raised from museums, universities, and individuals who subscribed to the fund.” The publication states that there were advantages for subscribers: “The institution was not only supporting the scholarly research of the excavators, but was also receiving objects of known provenance and authenticity – something far from the norm in the antiquities market of the day”. The group has slightly changed its name, but it is still in operation. You can read more about them here.

Unfortunately, even though the object has been in the museum’s collection for over a hundred years not much research has been done on the piece. Egyptology expert, Lenore O. Congdon studied the museum’s Egyptian collection in 1988. She explained that the fabric bandage “was torn or cut from a larger piece, probably a fine-woven bed sheet, and used to wrap the body”.  She also wrote in a letter to the museum in 1988, “Question – that mummified hand – in retrospect it seemed that it was a bit yielding to the touch, not like wood. Was it just my gloves and imagination or is it really the case? Depending on whether it is hard or yielding I might be able to give an educated guess as to the mummification process used.” Ms. Congdon never found the answer to this question, according to our records.

More recently, however the mummified hand has gotten more attention. It was recently photographed for our IMLS ancient art digitization grant. Also, Coordinator of Mellon Academic Programs, Elizabeth Gallerani has brought it out to be used in teaching for a variety of classes. These classes included an anthropology class that focused on archaeology and/or ancient civilizations (Antonia Foias). It was also used in a group of history classes about the following subjects:  colonialism and repatriation (Shanti Singham), cultural identity and how political powers use ancient artifacts (Magnus Bernhardsson), and historical theory – what an object represents/what stories it can tell/how to use it as a primary source (Eiko Siniawer). According to Elizabeth Gallerani, she encouraged the classes to ask questions about age, gender, and the location of the rest of the body. The classes discussed a wide variety of subjects like DNA testing, religion, repatriation, ethics, and the afterlife.

The back side of the hand

I did a condition report on the hand for our IMLS grant, and it is surprisingly in good condition considering its age. It does have some cracks in the wrist and fingers, and its bandage is coming slightly undone. It does have its own archival box, and it sits in the back of a cabinet undisturbed, so the condition is stable. Hopefully classes and museum staff will be able to ponder all the mysterious questions surrounding this mummy hand for years to come.


7 Responses to Mummified Hand

  1. Shaina says:

    YIKES!!! That is so incredible (and slightly disturbing at the same time haha). I have actually wondered if these types of things (finding a mummified detached body part) really do happen and if people are still able to dig these types of things up. I guess it is possible! Really enjoyed this blog. You learn something new everyday!

  2. Scott says:

    Really fascinating stuff, good work!

  3. Kevin Barrett says:

    This is creepy but very appropriate for Halloween time! Thanks for sharing.

  4. Hannah says:

    Really creepy! Remind me of a movie i’ve seen. Great post though!

  5. Kris says:

    I love articles like this! I would guess that we have only unearthed less than 1% of all the mummified specimens that are buried out there.

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