The Mystery of the Mummy Hand Part 2

By Antonia Foias, Chair and Professor of Anthropology

Egyptian, Mummified hand, ca. 70-230 AD, human remains, linen, oil resin. Anonymous gift.

The mummy hand held by WCMA has always been a mystery to me, full of questions and no answers: how old was it? Who was he or she? Why do we have only the hand? Where is the rest of the mummy? In the fall of 2013, Betsy Hart, Class of 2014, decided to make it the center piece of her independent study of ancient Egyptian religion and concepts of life, death and the afterlife. We wanted to take bone samples of the mummy to submit to radiocarbon dating and to ancient DNA analysis. Maybe this way we could figure out the identity of this ancient Egyptian whose body was submitted to mummification and preserved for eternity.  Ironically, his or her identity is lost forever.

Scan of the x-ray

When my students first encounter the mummy hand close up in the Rose Gallery, they are horrified, shocked, but the hand and the person remain distant, lost behind the “specimen”. He or she remains only as the cold blackened bone-and-skin sitting in a carton box. Strangely enough what brought back the humanity of the “specimen” to me was the X-ray we took before cutting small pieces of bone for the scientific analyses. The X-ray showed the human bone underneath the mummified skin, and I sat there looking at the picture wondering if it was a child or an adult, a woman or a man, and asking what did he or she do and think about in their life? I placed my hand over the X-ray photograph on my computer screen, and it was bigger than my hand (or so it seemed). Was it a man then, or a tall woman? There was no doubt that it was an adult, according to my friend and physical anthropologist, Lori Wright, Professor of Anthropology at Texas A&M University.

Betsy studied other artifacts from the Egyptian collection at WCMA in the hopes that we could determine how old these were, and from where they came. We thought that there was a chance that the mummy came from the same location or same tomb as the other ancient Egyptian artifacts. WCMA’s collection of shawabtis turned out to be the most relevant to our exploration because Betsy identified the general time periods for several of them. She focused her study on two sets of shawabtis: one group was made of green faience with incised hieroglyphs, and a second group was brilliantly blue faience with painted black hieroglyphs. These two groups were very distinctive and Betsy was hoping that their style was specific to only one or two ancient Egyptian dynasties. Betsy’s hard work paid off. She was able to find comparable green faience shawabtis among the high officials of the 26th Dynasty (c. 664 – 525 B.C.; also known as the Saite Dynasty) in the Late Period. Close similarities as well as some identities in the name cartouches on the second group of shawabtis suggest that most if not all of the WCMA blue faience funerary statuettes come from the 21stDynasty (c. 1077-943 B.C.).

Right: Egyptian Shawabti. Gift of Horace Mayer. (60.37.8)
Left: Egyptian Shawabti of High Priest Paynozem. Gift of Horace Mayer. (61.19.4)

So, getting back to our mummy hand, I really wanted he or she to date to the 21st Dynasty because so much is known about these mummies. Unfortunately, when the radiocarbon results came back from Beta-Analytic, it showed that the WCMA mummy was from the early Roman period, from the late first century to the early third century A.D.  Thus, the mystery of the WCMA mummy hand continues: Who was he or she? What did she or he do in life? Why do we have only the hand? Where is the rest of the mummy?


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