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Latest C-14 Testing of Science Museum of Minnesota’s Mummy Sheds New Light on Its History

March 21, 2016


The mummy, a longtime favorite exhibit with generations of museum visitors, was acquired by the museum in 1925. It was purchased by a museum trustee during a trip to Cairo in the midst of the “Tutmania” craze of the 1920s, and it arrived in St. Paul with little information about its archaeological context. Since then, the museum has taken advantage of several opportunities to use the latest technologies to study the specimen in an effort to better understand its history. The most recent round of testing, made possible in part by funding from Merjent, was completed this spring. Read the press release here.

Museum staff collected samples of both the mummy’s rib bone and its two kinds of linen wrappings and sent them to two different labs for radiocarbon dating analysis.

The testing revealed that the mummy is actually younger than the museum originally thought, dating back to the Greco-Roman period (1st century BCE to 1st century CE, approximately). Previous assumptions had suggested that the individual died and was mummified during the 18th dynasty (1550 to 1295 BCE).

“We have little context for this mummy, so we have always assumed that he was from the 18th Dynasty based on information provided to Mr. Crosby when he purchased him in the 1920s,” said Dr. Ed Fleming, curator for archaeology at the Science Museum. “This most recent round of tests shows that he died much later than we previously thought. This opens up all sorts of new avenues for research and interpretation. Finally, we can definitively place him into time and interpret him according to the politics and society of ancient Egypt from when he lived.”

In carbon dating, scientists analyze the amount of Carbon-14 (C-14) in a specimen. C-14 is a naturally-occurring radioactive isotope that is present in organic material. After the death of an organism, the amount of C-14 decreases at a constant rate. Using this dating method, researchers measure the amount of C-14 in a sample, factor in its rate of decay, and determine its age with a reasonable level of accuracy. The radiocarbon dating method was developed in the late 1940s. The development of Accelerator Mass Spectrometry (AMS) for radiocarbon dating in the late 1970s has improved the precision of dates and requires only small samples. Laboratory methods continue to be refined to improve the accuracy and precision of radiocarbon dating.

During the Greco-Roman period of Egyptian history, Egypt became a Roman province. The individual the Science Museum’s mummy represents would have been alive during the time of such famous rulers as Cleopatra, Julius Caesar, and Caesar Augustus. Knowing this about its history allows the museum to give the mummy more accurate historical context. The labels on the mummy display on level 4 will be updated to reflect its new dates, and volunteers who staff the popular exhibit will have new information to aid in their interpretation.

“It’s fascinating to be able to more precisely pinpoint what life was like when this individual was alive,” continues Fleming. In addition, “The project is an excellent example of why it is important to continue to study the items in our collection, taking advantage of current science methods to test our assumptions. Sometimes our assumptions prove to be wrong, but the new data can lead us in exciting new directions.”

The Science Museum of Minnesota is the Upper Midwest’s most popular museum, inspiring nearly a million people each year through its visitor place, outreach programs, exhibit and film production and distribution programs, and more. Among the nation’s largest and most esteemed science museums, the Science Museum conducts research, collects and preserves artifacts, produces and distributes award-winning exhibits and giant screen films, and offers educational programs for children, families, and adults. For more information, call (651) 221-9444 or visit www.smm.org.

Timeline for Science Museum of Minnesota mummy study:
1925 – The mummy was acquired by Science Museum trustee Simon Crosby while on a Mediterranean trip with his wife, daughter, and granddaughter.
1930s – The left half of the mummy’s head and torso were unwrapped.
1960s – The first x-rays of the human and hawk mummies were performed.
1983 – Axial CT scans, an endoscopic examination, and tissue analysis were conducted.
2010 – Digital CT scans and x-rays were conducted of both the Science Museum’s human and animal mummies.
2016 – Radiocarbon study was performed on one rib bone sample and four linen samples

Media Contacts: Kim Ramsden, Public Relations Director, (651) 221-9423, kramsden@smm.org Sarah Imholte, Public Relations Specialist, (651) 221-9412, simholte@smm.org

Saint Paul, Minn. – The Science Museum of Minnesota has released the results of the most recent scientific research on its Egyptian mummy. https://www.smm.org/mummies

Merjent is proud to have provided financial support toward this round of testing! Visit the museum’s mummy, and others from around the world, at the “Mummies” exhibit, now through Sept. 15th. Don’t miss it!

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