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October 09, 2003

This Mummy Has Four Feet, Few Bones And A New Home

Archaeologists at the Burke Museum of Natural History and Culture had no idea what they would learn when they sent Nellie, the museum's Egyptian mummy, to the University of Washington Medical Center to undergo a CT scan three years ago as the first step in a conservation process.

As it turns out, they learned a lot. For one thing, Nellie, who dates back to the Ptolemaic period between 305 and 34 B.C., has four feet. The pair that had been displayed with Nellie for years did not belong to her, according to Peter Lape, the Burke's curator of archaeology and a UW acting assistant professor of anthropology, and Laura Phillips, the Burke's archaeology collections manager. They also found that most of the bones from the mummy's body, including her original feet had been removed sometime in the 20th century, and her chest cavity had been filled with chicken wire and polyurethane foam. Scans of the skull also revealed Nellie's lips faintly curled, enigmatically, like some Egyptian Mona Lisa.

Nellie has been undergoing conservation and stabilization since the scanning and will return to public display as part of the Burke's upcoming "Reverent Remembrance: Honoring the Dead" exhibit which opens Oct. 2 and runs through Feb. 22, 2004.

"The scans confirmed that the mummy was in poor condition," said Phillips. "A lot of her bones had been removed in the early part of the last century. The bones are preserved separately at the museum and what remains are just the skull and her legs, but not her original feet."

As for those appendages that had previously been displayed with the mummy, "one foot is from another mummy and the other is a mirror image of it made from plaster. The mummified foot does not articulate with her ankle bone, nor does it match her in size," said Phillips.

Nellie's original foot bones are being preserved with the other bones that were removed. The Burke also is preserving two water lily bulbs, which were earlier recovered from the chest cavity. Lily bulbs, a sign of immortality, were often buried with Egyptian mummies.

"We are stabilizing Nellie, not restoring her," said Phillips "Eventually we would like to undo what people thought was fixing her in the 1960s. To add fake feet to the mummy is not appropriate. She was mummified with all of her parts in preparation for her journey into the underworld and this is why we are preserving all of her bones."

The CT scans and subsequent conservation work directed by Linda Roundhill, owner of Arts and Antiquities Conservation, revealed the chicken wire and foam in Nellie's chest. This work apparently was done to hold the mummy's collapsing chest together and give it shape. It probably was undertaken in 1963, according to telephone calls and photographs documenting the work that were sent to the museum following news accounts of the CT scans.

"The foam is in every nook and cranny of the chest cavity and some day we would like to remove it," said Lape. "But that would take months and months of tedious work and a great deal of money."

The scans also revealed that a metal rod had been inserted into the mummy. It extends from the base of Nellie's skull to mid-thigh and was probably set into place in 1963 as part of the effort to preserve the mummy's chest.

The conservation process also included work by Roundhill on a coffin and the decorative mask and body plates or cartonnage, which will be displayed on top of the linen-wrapped mummy.

When Nellie goes back on view at the Burke Museum next month, she will be resting in a new $20,000 climate-controlled display case. The case includes an upper glass chamber where the painted wooden coffin, most likely made of sycamore, is displayed. Nellie rests in a lower drawer and will be covered by the mask and cartonnage with which she was buried.

Overall, the conservation and stabilization of Nellie and associated items cost about $46,000. Of that, $32,000 was donated by the Friends of Frany Backus, who died last year. She was the granddaughter-in-law of former UW regent Manson Backus, who in 1902 purchased and donated the mummy to what is today's Burke Museum. He bought the mummy and a non-related coffin from the National Museum of Egyptian Antiquities at Giza.

The mummy was unearthed at Fayum, Egypt, and is believed to be the remains of an unknown adult woman about 5 feet tall. The style and condition of the cartonnage seem to indicate that she was middle class. The 6-foot-long coffin is about 1,000 years older than Nellie, dating from the XXI Dynasty and was originally found in Thebes, Egypt. Its occupant lived several hundred years after King Tut. Over the years, the mummy became a popular attraction at the Burke and acquired the nickname of "Nellie," apparently after Nellie Cornish, founder of Seattle's Cornish College of the Arts.

The conservation efforts were assisted by a number of individuals and organizations, including Scott Noegel, UW associate professor of Near Eastern Languages and Civilization, and head of the Northwest Interest Group of the American Research Center in Egypt and the Ancient Egypt Studies Association. John Sarr and Susan Cottman of the American Research Center in Egypt are helping interpret inscriptions on the coffin.

Phillips and Lape also are interested in locating historical photographs of Nellie. There are few records from 1902 through the early 1960s. They believe the mummy was displayed at the Alaska-Yukon-Pacific Exposition held on the UW campus in 1909. People who have historical photos or other material relating to Nellie may contact Phillips or Lape at the museum at (206) 543-5590.

This story has been adapted from a news release issued by University Of Washington.

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