The Emperor’s Favorite – Her Final Act

3-D images reveal secrets of a 2,800 year-old mummy of a singer-priestess, star of the Egyptian collection at the National Museum in Rio de Janeiro

The casket of Sha-Amun-em-su, a singer-priestess of the Temple of Amun

Eduardo CesarThe casket of Sha-Amun-em-su, a singer-priestess of the Temple of AmunEduardo Cesar

A book in exchange for a mummy. The transaction was a good one for Dom Pedro II, a scholar of ancient Egyptian culture. The emperor gave a book about Brazil to Khedive Ismail, at the time a local sovereign, and then, between 1876 and 1877 during his second trip to the land of the pharaohs, received a sealed casket in return. Inside the coffin, which is made of brightly colored plastered wood, lay the mummy of a singer-priestess who had intoned sacred songs in the temple dedicated to the god Amun in Karnak, in the vicinity of Thebes (now Luxor). The woman died at about age 50 during the 22nd dynasty, around 750 B.C. The coffin of Sha-Amun-em-su, name of the songstress that means “the verdant fields of Amun,” was kept in the private office of Dom Pedro II in the imperial palace of Quinta da Boa Vista, in Rio de Janeiro, until 1889. She was one of the passions of the monarch who, legend has it, would even talk to the casket. After the proclamation of the Republic, the mummy was added to the Egyptian collection of the National Museum, which since 1892 has occupied the former residence of the Brazilian royal family, now the property of the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro (UFRJ).

Although it has never been opened since it became the final residence of Sha-Amun-em-su, in recent years the casket has become a valuable source of information about the funeral customs adopted by the Egyptians in order to guarantee their singers-priestesses a pleasant existence in the afterlife.

With the aid of X-ray computerized tomography examinations (X-ray CT) that allow a three-dimensional view of the internal structures preserved for 2,800 years inside the coffin, a team headed by archeologist Antonio Brancaglion Junior, curator of the Egyptian collection at the National Museum, recently discovered that the singer’s throat seems to have been covered by a bandage and resin. Apparently those responsible for the mummification of Sha-Amun-em-su were anxious to protect a body part that is vital for someone who had raised her voice in sacred rituals, a skill that, according to the religion of ancient Egyptians, would also be useful to her in the afterlife. “There are extremely few mummies of singers in the world, especially mummies found in a sealed casket,” Brancaglion says. “One of the others is in Chicago, and also seems to have some sort of protection on its throat.”

X-ray tomogram of her mummy. Protection was applied to the throat to preserve her voice.

IUGIRO KUROKIX-ray tomogram of her mummy: protection was applied to the throat to preserve her voice IUGIRO KUROKI

The archeologist is referring to Meresamun, also a singer-priestess of the Temple of Amun, the principal Egyptian divinity of that period. She lived around 800 B.C., also during the 22nd dynasty. Meresamun, whose name means “Amun loves her,” was a near-contemporary of Sha-Amun-em-su. Crafted in a style similar to the casket of her sister songstress that ended up in Rio de Janeiro, Meresamun’s casket is now in the collection of the Oriental Institute of the University of Chicago. It, too, has never been opened. Inside is the body of a young woman who died at about age 30. Tomography performed late in 2008 revealed that the singer’s mouth and throat are covered with wads of what looks like soil, attached by some sort of tie. Any similarity with the protection observed on the neck of Sha-Amun-em-su is probably not mere coincidence. Brancaglion suspects that the bandaging in the area of the vocal cords present on both singers may indicate a specific pattern of mummification used for women who had been responsible for music in the Temple of Amun.

Although they were not members of noble families, the singer-priestesses of that sacred place came from a local elite, a sort of upper-middle class. They typically would have learned their art from their mothers, and it was not unusual for a family to supply successive generations of singers. Although not necessarily virgins, they were seen as extremely pure—to such extent that they were allowed to practice their trade inside a building as important and symbolic as the one dedicated to the cult of Amun.

The tomography of Sha-Amun-em-su performed by radiologist Iugiro Kuroki under the guidance of paleopathologist Sheila Mendonça, from the Oswaldo Cruz Foundation (Fiocruz), at a private clinic in Rio de Janeiro, also showed that amulets had been placed in the coffin. These included the scarab-heart, a symbol associated with resurrection of the dead. Composed of an oval green stone set in a flat piece of gold that hangs as a pendant from a cord that is also golden, the scarab bears the name of the deceased, written in hieroglyphics. It was placed either on the heart of the mummy or, if the heart had been removed during the embalming process, in the place where the heart would have been. “The heart was seen by the ancient Egyptians as the site of intelligence and emotions,” says Brancaglion, who is also a professor of graduate level oriental languages and literature at the Faculty of Philosophy, Languages and Literature, and Human Sciences of the University of São Paulo (FFLCH-USP). Among the anatomic revelations obtained from the X-ray images, a dental curiosity attracted attention: the singer still had all but one of her teeth.

A Virtual Unwinding of Bandages
Widely used in medicine to view bones and soft tissues without having to make an incision in the patient, computerized tomography also enables real-life archeologists and anthropologists to see inside an object non-invasively and without destroying any part of it. Depending on the settings adopted for the apparatus, each round of tomography can highlight a separate element of the internal content, regardless of the kind of material: bones, stones, and metals. In the case of mummies, even the strips of linen used to protect an embalmed body can be depicted. “We can unwrap a mummy virtually, without damaging it in any way,” says Jorge Lopes, coordinator of the Center for Three-Dimensional Experimentation (Next) at the Pontifical Catholic University of Rio de Janeiro (PUC-Rio) and a researcher at the National Institute of Technology (INT). “We can even show the size of the embalmed body in relation to the dimensions of the coffin.”

Group of images of the casket, the mummy, and the singer’s skeleton.

Simone BelmonteGroup of images of the casket, the mummy, and the singer’s skeleton.Simone Belmonte

A frequent partner in the work of Brancaglion’s team, Lopes coordinated production of the tomograms and the three-dimensional scans of the casket of Sha-Amun-em-su and other pieces in the Egyptian collection, as well as objects from other departments of the National Museum, such as dinosaurs and pre-historic birds on exhibit in the paleontology section. Just as X-ray computerized tomography can reveal the intestines of beings or the innermost parts of objects, a 3-D scanner that emits laser or white light beams can reproduce the contours of a surface in rich detail.

Both methods generate electronic files of three-dimensional data, the so-called orthogonal coordinates that can be used to feed a 3-D printer. This makes it possible to fabricate a smaller-scale replica of the skeleton of Sha-Amun-em-su as well as the outer surfaces of the polychrome casket that has protected it from prying eyes for 2,800 years. “A 3-D printer uses the same concept that was employed in construction of the pyramids, or even a house,” says Lopes. “An object is constructed by adding new layers over the old, block by block. The principle is an old one. Only the technology is modern, and more precise.” Along with Brancaglion, paleontologist Sergio Alex Azevedo, also from the National Museum, and physician Heron Werner Jr., Lopes is one of the editors of the newly-published book entitled Tecnologias 3-D: desvendando o passado, modelando o futuro (3-D Technologies: revealing the past, modeling the future).

Digital Preservation
Producing three-dimensional images of items that are part of a biology or natural history collection has become almost mandatory at the world’s great museums. For researchers in the most varied fields, the availability of digital files that depict the internal and external shapes of a sarcophagus from ancient Egypt, a set of bones from the Stone Age, a skeleton of a Jurassic dinosaur, or even a recently discovered species of beetle, represents a new method of study and analysis. The 3-D images and models are also a useful tool for education, distribution to the public, and preservation—albeit in digital form—of the features of an object or monument. “There has been quite a boom in the use of this technology in recent years,” says Lopes.

In November 2013, the Smithsonian Institution, headquartered in Washington D.C., launched an initiative known as Smithsonian X 3-D. On its website, the U.S. institution—which includes 19 museums, 9 research centers, and the National Zoo—makes tools available for people to view and explore three-dimensional images of scanned items from its collection, an enormous repository of 137 million objects, works of art, and specimens of different species. It is also possible to download files of models and to print pieces on a 3-D printer. CyArk, a non-profit organization based in California, has embarked on a huge global project to scan those of the world’s monuments that are at risk of being destroyed, or considered as cultural treasures of humanity. Places like the ancient Mayan city of Chichen Itza, in Mexico, or the Opera House in Sydney, Australia, are on its list of structures being scanned for the benefit of future generations.

Mummies of cats alongside their respective skeletons, as reproduced by a 3-D printer: tomograph and scanner in the service of Egyptologists.

Jorge lopesMummies of cats alongside their respective skeletons, as reproduced by a 3-D printer: tomograph and scanner in the service of EgyptologistsJorge lopes

The singer’s casket is the most striking piece in the collection of the National Museum, but not the only one that has been examined using these new technologies. The National Museum has mummies of cats, an animal that Egyptians were passionate about. Some of these have already been tomographed and scanned. Concealed by bandages, skeletons of some of those felines have even been reproduced by 3-D printers. The new technologies have also helped answer, once and for all, a question about one of the obscure pieces in the collection. A mummy that had been cataloged as belonging to a newborn human was in fact that of a cat. “Looking closely at the mummy, you might even suspect that it wasn’t the mummy of a baby. But we weren’t certain until after the tomography,” Brancaglion says. The issue could have been cleared up earlier by opening the mummy, but that strategy was obviously out of the question.

Scholars are not exaggerating when they say that it is estimated that millions of cats were embalmed, wrapped in strips of cloth, and buried in a manner similar to the way humans were buried in ancient Egypt. Sacred to the ancient Egyptians, the cat represented Bastet, goddess of fertility. There were also practical reasons for farmers to be fond of that agile four-footed companion. A cat could scare or even kill snakes, and especially rats, which threatened to devour crops. “Cats were thought of as members of the family,” Brancaglion explains. “Anyone who killed one could be sentenced to death.” The preservation of felines for an afterlife was a practice so common among ancient Egyptians that at the end of the 19th century, an expedition found about 300,000 cat mummies at a single funeral site in Beni-Hassan, on the east bank of the Nile, in central Egypt. Regarded by their modern discoverers as unimportant, the thousands of embalmed cat bodies were sold to a British company that is said to have used them as fertilizer.

Purchase at auction
Although small when compared with the collections of institutions in Europe, the United States, and the Museum of Cairo itself, which has 120,000 items in its various buildings, the Egyptian collection of approximately 700 funeral-related objects at the National Museum is the oldest and most important in South America. “Almost everyone thinks it began with Dom Pedro II, but in fact it started with Dom Pedro I.,” says Brancaglion. Its first items were acquired in 1826, when Dom Pedro I purchased a huge shipment of objects from Italian trader Nicolau Fiengo. Those goods were the rewards reaped by Westerners who had pillaged the monuments of ancient Egypt. Taken primarily from tombs of people who had worked for the empire, who made up a sort of middle class in ancient Egypt, the pieces now at the Quinta da Boa Vista palace were originally intended to be taken to Buenos Aires for sale. But the first monarch of the Brazilian empire was able to buy them at an auction in Rio de Janeiro when the European merchant made a stop there.

Most of the pieces probably come from the city of Thebes. Besides Sha-Amun-en-su, there are three more complete mummies of adults, two of children, and some embalmed parts of human bodies. The mummy of Kherima, a young woman who lived during the period of Roman domination of Egypt between the 1st and 2nd centuries A.D., is considered to be rare. Each of her arms and legs was wrapped individually, separately from the rest of the body. “We know of only nine mummies in the world that were given that kind of external treatment,” says Brancaglion.

Detail of coffin, approximate date 1,000 B.C., from the collection of the National Museum

Eduardo CesarDetail of coffin, approximate date 1,000 B.C., from the collection of the National MuseumEduardo Cesar

The collection also includes coffin lids, masks, amulets, vases, and statues. There are more than 200 examples of a single type of funeral statue, the shabti, an item that inspired one of Brancaglion’s former master’s degree students to study those objects in foreign museums (see boxed text). Another unusual piece is the female figure depicted by a partially-destroyed 18.5 cm bronze statuette. Her petticoat is marked with a hieroglyphic that provides the only known mention of the fact that the priest Menkheperre, who lived between the 11th and 10th centuries B.C., had exercised power as a pharaoh. “That is why the image blends both royal and priestly attributes,” says Cintia Facuri, a master’s candidate in Egyptian archeology at the National Museum.

Also in the collection of the Rio institution are funeral stelas. A stela is a type of upright stone slab on which are found drawings and inscriptions. On one of those stone blocks, known as the stela of Haunefer, sculptured out of calcareous rock between 1300 and 1200 B.C. in the ancient city of Ábidos (central Egypt) there is an inscription that is the first known allusion to a very specific occupation practiced in ancient Egypt: that of “maker of striped quilts” for the pharaoh. On the stela for Sensuret-Iunefer, also from Ábidos but from the end of the 19th century B.C., there appears the oldest record of the Asian term on an Egyptian source.

Besides working on projects that employ modern technologies to study the ancient world of the Egyptians, Brancaglion is busy training candidates for master’s and doctoral degrees in Egyptology, a field of research in which Brazil has no tradition. In that regard, the international partnerships and initiatives being put together by the National Museum team are useful. Along with historian Violeta Pereyra, professor at the University of Buenos Aires and director of Argentina’s archeological mission in Luxor, Brancaglion expects to visit, sometime in 2014, the tomb of Neferhotep, a high official in the ancient Egyptian empire who was a contemporary of pharaoh Tutankhamun and died around 1350 B.C. Situated near the Valley of Kings, in an area that is part of greater Thebes, the tomb is one of the largest built by an individual who was neither of royal blood nor was a noble. After the death of the man who built it, it came to be used as a tomb for others. During the past two centuries, it has been explored by teams of archeologists from France, England, and the United States, and was even the scene of fires.

photo from Pedro II’s trip to Egypt

National Libraryphoto from Pedro II’s trip to EgyptNational Library

Since 1999, Pereyra has held the “key” to the tomb and controls access to the site. “Frankly, I got the tomb because no one else wanted it. It was in complete disarray and its paintings had become dark with soot,” says Pereyra, who, along with German colleagues is embarking on a pioneering task of restoring the inside of the monument. In recent years, some of the hieroglyphics and the paintings on the walls, especially a mural that depicts the Temple of Amun in Karnack, have been undergoing gradual cleaning with the aid of a laser device. This is the first time that Egyptian authorities have authorized the use of that technology in the restoration of ancient monuments. “We needed an archeologist in our group, and so we invited Brancaglion,” Pereyra says.

A student of Brazil’s pre-historic populations, archeologist and bio-anthropologist Claudia Rodrigues-Carvalho, director of the National Museum, began an interesting research project with the Italian archeological mission at Luxor in 2009: seeking to understand the actions of thieves who looted the magnificent tomb of Harwa, situated in the El-Assasif cemetery, near Thebes. Harwa, an enigmatic character, had been a high-ranking imperial official who, according to new interpretations, may have been the de facto ruler of all of southern Egypt at the beginning of the 7th century B.C. During the 25th dynasty, the region was conquered by the Nubians and the so-called black pharaohs ascended to power. History shows that the tomb was then used for many years to receive new burials. “This went on for a very long time,” Rodrigues-Carvalho says. She will try to establish a chronology of the occupation and pillage of the sepulcher.

The opportunity to plunder sites in the ancient land of the pharaohs served to encourage the colonization by major powers and whet the appetites of clever and greedy individuals for a long time. It should come as no surprise that the actions by looters of relics have now become the subject of studies.

Shabtis of the Pharaoh Tutankhamun

Shabtis of the Pharaoh Tutankhamun

Servants in the service of the mummy in the great beyond

Belief in eternal life after death is one of the defining traits of the religion of ancient Egypt. It encouraged the adoption of many funeral-related practices and the use of amulets whose ultimate purpose was to permit the resurrection of the deceased and make their second existence less difficult. The shabtis, statuettes measuring from 10 to 60 cm in height and that shared the sepulchers with the mummies are one of the artifacts most representative of those beliefs, although wrapped in mystery. Their function was well known: to labor in the place of the deceased in the great beyond; specifically, to plow the sacred fields of Osiris, the god of life-after-death and the underworld.

Unlike many of the religious habits that prevailed in ancient Egypt, which usually arose primarily among the pharaohs and later were adopted by the common people, the crafting of shabtis took the opposite route. Around 2,000 B.C., the elite began to order artisans to craft those small figures, made of terra cotta, wood, or stone, frequently resembling mini-mummies. “It took about 500 years for the pharaohs to start making their funeral statuettes,” says São Paulo archeologist Cintia Alfieri Gama Rolland, who is working on her doctorate about the shabtis of the pharaohs at the École pratique des hautes études (EPHE) at the Sorbonne, in Paris.

Why did the most powerful men of ancient Egypt, who in real life never had to work, start wanting to be buried with a retinue of statuette-servants that were intended to labor in their stead in the great beyond? That is the central question that Rolland will try to answer in her dissertation after having studied the collection of 244 shabtis in the National Museum collection (which came from the tombs of both ordinary people and the tomb of Pharaoh Sethy I) during her master’s work. During the New Empire, between the 16th and 11th centuries B.C. when the great pharaohs were at the peak of their power, the number of shabtis buried with mummies of the rich and powerful increased significantly. “Originally, people would make only one shabti to be buried with them. The statuette was like a copy of the deceased and would work in their stead after death,” Rolland explains.

When the pharaohs started adopting that funeral practice, the number of shabtis in their sepulchers multiplied and the statuettes assumed the role of servants, rather than replicas, of the deceased. Some pharaohs also had a shabti for each day of the year—every day in the great beyond a different servant would take over the work that originally should have been done by his master—and there were even statuette-foremen, responsible for overseeing the implementation of that labor scheme. At the tomb of Tutankhamun, the famous boy-Pharaoh, 417 shabtis were found, made of (gilded) wood, glazed earthenware, alabaster, granite, and quartzite. So far, Rolland has examined 1,507 statuettes that were found in tombs of the pharaohs and are in the collections of museums in Europe, the United States, and Egypt.