Uncovering secrets of ancient Egypt

The modest Egyptian coffin sat quietly for decades with no-one guessing its mystery. When the mummy within was finally discovered, it offered an opportunity to gain new insights into the glories of that ancient civilisation. The question was, how to start?

When military commander and later Emperor of France, Napoleon Bonaparte, invaded Egypt in 1798, Europe became fascinated by the lavish history of the ancient Egyptian dynasties – so much so that a supply chain sprang up to funnel artefacts and mummies from Egypt to eager European buyers.

At the time, mummies were incredibly easy to come by because there were centuries’ worth of mummified nobility to draw on, and commoners as well, naturally mummified by the hot, dry Egyptian climate. You could easily buy them from local street vendors with enough for chic Victorians to host mummy-unwrapping parties. Unsaleable mummies were often used as fertiliser and fuel.

A computer tomography (CT) scan of the contents of the coffin of Mer-Neith-it-es. Created by Macquarie Medical Imaging.

Sir Charles Nicolson’s passion for the ancient world

In 1856, Sir Charles Nicholson entered that hectic marketplace as he sailed down the Nile. An English physician who had moved to Australia to join his wealthy shipowner uncle, Nicholson soon gained his own stature and was instrumental in setting up the University of Sydney, where he had many key roles, including chancellor.

Nicholson himself might have described the Egyptian antiquities market in terms of caveat emptor (“let the buyer beware”). If you said you’d pay more for a coffin with a mummy, that’s what you’d get. But did the mummy belong in that coffin? And was that an actual mummy or a newer body from another source?

Dealing as best he could with the uncertainties, Nicholson put together his collection, which included elements from all over the ancient world, with one goal in mind. He wanted the new settlers in Australia to have a connection with antiquity (the greater antiquity of Aboriginal Australia was not a consideration), so in 1860 he started donating his collection to the University of Sydney, a continuing gesture which eventually added up to more than one thousand pieces. This gift led to the creation of the Nicholson Museum.

Fraser and Lord peel back a sheet to reveal the wooden mummy coffin

Fraser and Lord examine the mummy remains which were crammed down the head-end of the coffin.

The mysterious Egyptian coffin

“Among the treasures was a particular Egyptian coffin,” says Senior Curator of the Nicholson, Dr James Fraser (BA(Hons) ’04 PhD ’16). “When I arrived at the University, a catalogue from 1948 said it was empty. But no-one really knew what was inside.”

An eager archaeologist, Fraser opened the coffin. It wasn’t empty. What it contained was, in essence, a mummy, but so torn apart by tomb robbers seeking amulets and jewels and rough handling on its travels from Egypt, that it was a pile of debris packed down one end of the coffin’s interior.

“In some ways, this was a good thing,” says Fraser. “Unlike in the past, mummies are now treated respectfully, as human remains. A well‑preserved mummy shouldn’t be tampered with or dissected, so the mummy amalgam found in the coffin was a chance to understand a mummy from the inside out.”

The work of an Egyptologist

Dr Constance Lord wearing a dust mask

Working with mummy dust means Lord must take precautions.

The investigation of the remains was still respectful, and for the person charged with sifting through the materials, Dr Constance Lord (GradDipInternatStud ’95 BA ’92), painstakingly slow. It was also hugely engaging. “You’ll never be rich as an Egyptologist,” she says. “But you’ll also never be bored.”

Lord’s Egypt obsession started when she was just five, with an art book of her mother’s that contained beautiful and other-worldly images from the Tomb of Nebamun. After years of study, Lord is now skilled in forensic Egyptology, which allows her to piece together stories and lives from organic remains including fabrics, bones and soft tissue.

“Poop is my favourite though,” she admits. “It’s amazing and preserves so beautifully and tells you what their meals were and the medicines they used.”

At the Nicholson, Lord focussed on Coffin NMR. 29; the official name of the surprise coffin. The coffin was CT-scanned by Macquarie Medical Imaging, to squeeze out as much information as possible before Lord went to work. This is how she knew she would at least find various skeletal elements, including ankles and feet, which she was happy to hear. “That meant there might be toenails which are brilliant for radiocarbon dating.”

Uncovering the mummy’s secrets

The first step for Lord and Fraser was to come up with an examination process. They decided to treat the remains as eight sections, which Lord carefully pulled apart one at a time through trial and error, cataloguing even the smallest artefact – the first four sections took six, intense days.

A lot of the material was a dark, heavy dust, so a large sieve was used to reveal bigger elements like pieces of resin (used in the preservation process), wood and human bone. Next a finer sieve found fragments and fibres that were mainly textiles. A final, fine sieve gave a powder that was formed as the textile was slowly destroyed through reacting with the resin.

As it turned out, the toenails were there, but as part of a wrapped and well-preserved package of feet and ankles found at the head end of the coffin. Since the priority is to be as non-destructive as possible, this made the toenails effectively inaccessible. But every other fragment found was a joyful discovery for both Lord and Fraser, particularly the 7137 coloured beads of various sizes, which were a big clue to the status of the person in Coffin NMR. 29.

Contents going through a seive.
All material removed from the coffin was triple sieved so none of the tiny beads were missed.
Contents of the coffin in a container - a mix of bone, resin and textile.
The larger objects from the coffin included human bone, chunks of resin (some decorated) and textile used to wrap the body.
Lord holds a broken piece of the coffin in her hand.
A piece of the coffin discoloured by the preserving resin that had been poured on the body.
Many of the tools used by Lord to uncover fragments were the same as those used on archaeological sites.

Putting the pieces together

With all the mummy debris examined, sifted and catalogued, a picture emerged. As mentioned earlier, there is no guarantee that a coffin contains the right mummy, though it seems at least possible in this case. According to the coffin hieroglyphics, the person in NMR. 29 was Mer-Neith-it-es (‘Neith loves her father’) and the coffin dates to the 26th dynasty at about 600 BC.

The beads were probably part of a mask or decorative net covering the body and they were made of faience; glazed beads that the Egyptians believed were instilled with the energy of rebirth. The beads and her lavishly carved coffin made of expensive cedar tell us we’re looking at a woman of some wealth or she’s from a wealthy organisation. It could be that ‘Neith loves her father’ lived and worked in the temple of Neith.

After being hidden in plain sight for maybe 150 years, Mer-Neith-it-es will soon star in one of the most innovative displays of Egyptian artefacts in the Southern Hemisphere. In February this year, the Nicholson Museum closed its doors, so Mer-Neith-it-es, and all the other treasures of the Nicholson Museum, could move to the new Chau Chak Wing Museum. “The plans for the museum are incredibly exciting, and visually stunning,” says Fraser. “It’s like technology is delivering an afterlife for Mer-Neith-it-es, after all.”

A new museum

Sydney’s newest museum will open its doors on 26 August 2020. In effect three museums in one, the Chau Chak Wing Museum will house the collections of the Nicholson and Macleay museums, plus the University’s extensive collection of art.

The purpose-built structure will showcase thousands of precious art pieces and artefacts, many seldom seen in the past, due to limited space. The display rooms will also incorporate the latest museum practices and technologies to give visitors a wonderfully visual and immersive experience. From ancient Rome and Greece to the art of Aboriginal Australia and the works of leading contemporary artists, the Chau Chak Wing Museum will be open to all as a centre of cultural and artistic excellence.


Written by George Dodd. Photography by Stefanie Zingsheim.

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