The emperors and the mummies

The owner of Latin America's largest Egyptian collection, Brazil looks for resources to excavate in Tanis

ANTONIO BRANCAGLIONStages of the reconstruction of the face of “The Beautiful Woman from Thebes”ANTONIO BRANCAGLION

Argentinean archeologists lament to this day the passage through Rio de Janeiro of the Italian trader Nicolau Fiengo in the 1820’s. On that occasion, he was bringing from Marseilles, France, a collection of antiquities discovered by Giovanni Battista Belzoni. The Italian explorer had excavated them from the necropolis of Thebes, nowadays Luxor, in Karnak Temple. Something that was common in those days, he negotiated the antiquities with Fiengo, who was going to sell them in Argentina. But when he was in Rio, passing through to Buenos Aires, the news about the political climate in the neighboring country discouraged him from continuing his journey. Probably on the advice of José Bonifácio de Andrada e Silva, in 1826, Emperor Dom Pedro I bought the objects at an auction – and that was the origin of probably the oldest Egyptian collection in the Americas.

Still in the 19th century, the collection won an unexpected addition thanks to Dom Pedro II, who was one who was truly interested in Ancient Egypt. “He knew Hebrew and Arabic, at a time when Egyptology was more connected with Orientalism and ancient languages”, says Egyptologist Antonio Brancaglion, a researcher from the National Museum of the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro (MN/UFRJ) and a professor in the Oriental Languages Department of the University of São Paulo (USP). In 1876, on his third visit to Egypt, Dom Pedro II won from Khedive Ismail (the sovereign of the country) a magnificent painted coffin of the “Singer of Amun”, Sha-Amun-em-su. The emperor kept the piece in his office until 1889, when it was included in the MN’s collection. In the collection there are 700 objects, including whole human mummies and parts of them – such as heads, hands and feet, as was usual in a certain period in Egypt -, and of animals.

Teams from the MN have been investigating this extremely rich collection for many years. Today, this work has become multidisciplinary: it ranges from archeology to anatomopathology. “Samples of pollen, resins, pigments and DNA are analyzed with the objective of obtaining information for scientific, historical and cultural use, and as a basis for a strategy for conservation and presentation, as well as making them known to the public”, says Brancaglion. The team reconstructed the face of a mummy known as “The Beautiful Woman from Thebes”, a reproduction of the face of a woman between 19 and 25 years old, who lived in Thebes, 600 years before the Christian era. The reconstitution was a result of a partnership between the MN, the National Technology Institute, the Oswaldo Cruz Foundation (Fiocruz) and the Renato Archer Research Center. The work was pioneering in Brazil, but it did not please Brancaglion: “The skin lacked texture, it looked like a dummy”. The same team worked on the face of another mummy, this time with more resources. A specialist from Fiocruz, Sheila Mendonça, recently went to England to develop details of the technique and to bring new materials.

The competence acquired in Egyptology accredits Brazil to have a team of its own excavating in Egypt, something already attained by Argentina and Uruguay. Up until now, the Brazilians were merely part of foreign teams, in individual careers, for the researcher to take a master’s or doctor’s degree, for example. At the moment, though, a project to be carried out jointly with the French is at the funding stage. “In Tanis, an enormous area with much to be revealed, there is a French Excavation Mission, and our objective is to transform it into a Franco-Brazilian Excavation Mission”, he says. The French are financed by the CNRS, their National Council for Scientific and Technological Development (CNPq). “We are looking for the sponsorship of companies for a project that is cheap, even: about R$300 thousand.” Brancaglion bets that the Franco-Brazilian Mission is going to become reality this year.