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Mummy Clues Unravel Human Mysteries


A mummified monkey from Argentina dressed in a feathered skirt and headdress. Click the photo to see images of more mummies in the exhibit. Ticket sales for the exhibit opening tomorrow at Discovery Place have already outpaced the museum's last big blockbuster: BodyWorlds featured actual human bodies preserved and posed to unveil their intricate inner workings. "Mummies of the World" features bodies, too, but they're of humans and animals who lived hundreds - even thousands - of years ago. You will probably come to this exhibition with a notion of mummies based on movies or your high school history class. Science and education director Heather Gill-Frerking is okay with that. The first mummy that people get will meet in the exhibit fulfills that preconceived notion - it's a small child from ancient Egypt, about 15 inches long and 7 inches wide, tightly wrapped. "People really do believe that mummies just came from Egypt and they're always bandage-wrapped, but in fact the vast majority of mummies were not wrapped, and many of them were preserved naturally," says Gill-Frerking. In fact, most of the world's mummies weren't even prepared for preservation by other humans, says Gill-Frerking. They just happened to end up mummified by the elements. The next mummy in the exhibit is a prime example - a monkey from Argentina dressed in a feathered skirt and headdress. Gill-Frerking says scientists haven't been able to figure out why the monkey is dressed this way, but it inevitably proves fascinating for visitors to the exhibit. "Both children and adults will stand here for a very long period of time," says Gill-Frerking. In the process, she hopes they learn something. Mummies help us understand ancient cultures - how they lived and what they valued in life and death. The effects of disease and birth defects on people over the centuries have been uncovered by studying mummies. Scientists puzzle over mummies to learn about ancient medical practices, too. And then there's the basic scientific question of why the flesh and organs of one body decompose and are preserved in another. The feathered-dressed monkey, for example, "was more or less naturally-preserved because of the hot-dry air of South America," says Gill-Frerking. Places that are either cold and dry or hot and dry have proven prime for mummifying remains. Moisture is necessary for decomposition to set in, says Gill-Frerking. Somewhat counterintuitively, she adds that mummies have turned up in peat bogs. Gill-Frerking says the acid in the peat helps the bodies preserve, bog's wetness. Our preview of the Mummies of the World exhibition happened a few days ago, as people with forklifts and ladders hustled to set everything up. When the public arrives tomorrow, the atmosphere will be virtually silent - almost reverent. There is no "flash and sizzle" to "Mummies of the World." "These are real people," says Gill-Frerking. "Many people find that they need to reflect partway through the exhibition. They're coming face to face with people and with death in ways that maybe they haven't before. And so to be respectful both of the mummies and the visitors, we've kept that sort of thing to a minimum." One of the most striking mummies is a centuries-old woman from South America. She looks as if she curled up on a sofa and fell asleep. Her fine features are relaxed, her gorgeous brown hair tumbles over her shoulder. She's mesmerizing and disconcerting. Can this be the end she wanted, here on display in a glass case? Gill-Frerking acknowledges the sensitive nature of the exhibit, but says the mummies are displayed respectfully and with cultural artifacts to remind us of their humanity. And certainly this is preferable to being ground into powder for medicinal use as mummies were in the 1800s . . . or unwrapped for entertainment. Gill-Frerking says "mummy unwrapping parties" were quite common in Victorian England, "and we know of at least a few in New Jersey, as well." "You'd have a dinner party with a mummy in the middle of the table. You'd invite your friends and have dinner around the table and then for dessert you'd unwrap the mummy and then as take-home favors, you'd take all the little amulets and things out of the wrapping," says Gill-Frerking. To be a mummy - on display as a lesson in history and culture - is an excellent ending in Gill-Frerking's view. She intends to be buried in a peat bog. "Preferably with my medical records sealed in plastic so that in 500 or 1,000 years - hopefully I will preserve - and somebody can dig me up and know exactly what was going on in my body at the time," says Gill-Frerking. "Mummies of the World" opens Friday at Discovery Place and runs through April 8th.