The exhibit will show how Meresamun lived and what sorts of musical instruments she used. Details about her health, as revealed in CT scans using the latest equipment, help tell her life story. "In a virtual way, people will be able to meet this remarkable woman and, through her eyes, learn what it was like to live in Egypt 2,800 years ago," said Emily Teeter, an Egyptologist at the Oriental Institute and the curator of the exhibition. "We will be able to ‘recreate' the life of an Egyptian in a way no one has attempted before."
The exhibit, "The Life of Meresamun: A Temple Singer in Ancient Egypt" will be presented at the Oriental Institute Museum from February 10 through December 6, 2009. The centerpiece of the show is a brightly decorated coffin that contains the body of a woman who lived in Thebes (modern Luxor) in southern Egypt about 800 BC. A brief inscription on the coffin records her name and that she served as a Singer in the Interior of the Temple of Amun. Such singers were elite priestess-musicians who accompanied the High Priest as he performed rituals before the god Amun.
Meresamun was the first subject in Chicago to be studied with the Philips Healthcare iCT ("Intelligent CT") 256-channel scanner, which gave dramatically detailed views. Visitors to the exhibit will be able to explore features of Meresamun's health and also to perform a "virtual unwrapping" of the mummy enabling them to see how the mummy was prepared. Meresamun's appearance has been recreated using the most advanced digital techniques. She was tall by ancient standards- 5 and half feet-her features were regular with wide-spaced eyes and she had an overbite. University of Chicago radiologist Dr. Michael Vannier and the team looked for clues about Meresamun's health and lifestyle. Dr. Vannier commented: "Meresamun was, until the time of her death at about thirty, a very healthy woman. The lack of arrest lines on her bones indicates good nutrition through her lifetime and her well mineralized bones suggest that she lived an active lifestyle."
Objects that attest to the remarkable legal and social rights held by women in ancient Egypt document her life outside the temple and at home. A papyrus in the exhibit is inscribed with an annuity contract. It states that in exchange for thirty pieces of silver that a woman gave to her husband, he, in turn, was obligated to supply her with a stated amount of silver and grain each year. Even if they divorced, the contract stayed in effect until either the women died or cancelled the agreement.
When I first heard this story on CNN’s The Situation Room, it was presented as a fluff piece that described Meresamun as “a temple dancer” (not singer) and a “beautiful young woman” with “wide-set eyes, a very full mouth, and very high cheekbones” (no mention of her overbite—that would be icky). Her skills as an instrumental musician and her status and duties as an elite priestess also disappeared in the CNN piece. The main point of their segment seemed to be “yeah, but was she hawt?" The real story is very interesting though and I'm glad I went and looked it up.
Update: Shaker cejo kindly left a link to a free downloadable exhibit catalogue from the Oriental Institute in comments. Thanks, cejo!
Below the fold is a video segment and transcript with curator Dr. Emily Teeter and Dr. Michael Vannier discussing the advantages of rescanning Meresamun with the new Philips 256-slice iCT.
Meresamun came into our collection in 1920. She was purchased by the founder of the Institute, James Henry Breasted, in Egypt. Meresamun was a singer in the interior of the temple of Amun. We know this because it’s written on her coffin. It’s—with the Egyptian material it’s wonderful because they leave us so much data, so we have her name, and her title. So it really gives us an insight into who this person was. There was a fairly heated discussion whether we were going to bring the mummy back to be examined on the iCT, because we had just had her imaged on the previous generation. But Dr. Vannier really impressed upon us the superiority of this particular imager.
The experience with the first set of scans raised as many questions as it answered, and this is an opportunity for us to look in much greater detail and depth. And there seemed to be some significant differences between this mummy and some others that have been described. For instance this mummy has some severe fractures, particularly around the thoracic inlet, which we didn’t expect to see.
This is all very exciting to us, because as you can see mummy is a sealed coffin, and this is a wonderful sort of non-destructive technology we can use. And, we’re finding all sorts of interesting aspects about her which help us fill in what her life was like. Also, for the history of Egyptology, it’s very interesting looking at the style of mummification, there are a lot of features that I’ve never seen before. It’s—it’s like magic; it is so extraordinary to be bale to—it’s like X-Ray eyes, you know, just looking beyond, and being able to see the relationship of the body in the coffin is extremely interesting, and things like seeing the wrappings, the amount of linen that’s used, Um, it’s just inconceivable that this technology exists.