For the past 150 years, the cedar coffin of an ancient Egyptian priestess has been on display at a museum in Australia. Records suggested the 2500-year-old sarcophagus was empty, so no one bothered to look inside. Last year, museum curators finally opened the lid, and to their shock, the coffin contained an actual mummy - bandages and all.
The Egyptian coffin inside a laser scanner. Photo: Macquarie Medical Imaging
When the lid of the coffin was removed, the Nicholson Museum curators weren't expecting anything special. The ancient Egyptian artefact, along with three other wooden coffins containing full-bodied mummies, were acquired sometime around the year 1860 by Charles Nicholson, a former chancellor of Sydney University. But for some reason, the contents of this particular sarcophagus went unnoticed. A 1948 handbook associated with the coffin stated it was empty, and museum records suggested it contained "mixed debris".
When the lid was removed last year, the curators discovered the frayed remains of a bona fide ancient Egyptian mummy.
"It was just unbelievably astonishing what we saw - one of those moments where you can't help but take in a breath and just hang in the moment," Jamie Fraser, lead investigator and curator at Sydney University's Nicholson Museum, told the BBC. "I've never excavated an Egyptian tomb, but this comes close."
Using CT and laser scanners, Fraser's team has now completed a preliminary analysis of the coffin's contents.
The scattered contents of the coffin. Photo: Macquarie Medical Imaging
To be fair, the mummy is in bad shape, and it's no wonder the coffin's contents were listed as "debris". It's likely that tomb raiders pilfered the sarcophagus, looking for amulets, jewels and other treasures. Despite the poor condition of the remains, the researchers managed to pinpoint the location of the torso and several bones (including feet and leg bones, and several ribs), while uncovering bandages, traces of resins, and thousands of tiny glass beads from a funeral shawl.
The coffin's inhabitant died around the age of 30, but it isn't known if this person is the original occupant of the sarcophagus. Inscriptions on the coffin show it dates back to 600 BC, and that it belonged to a priestess named Mer-Neith-it-es. The mummy could very well her remains, but more work is required to confirm this.
The opened coffin. Photo: Nicholson Museum
"We know from the hieroglyphs that Mer-Neith-it-es worked in the Temple of Sekhmet, the lion-headed goddess," said Fraser in Deutsche Welle. "There are some clues in hieroglyphs and the way the mummification has been done and the style of the coffin that tell us about how this Temple of Sekhmet may have worked."
Looking ahead, the researchers would like to figure out what diseases may have affected this individual and the cause of death, along with clues about diet and lifestyle. The discovery of a body inside this coffin may have come as a complete surprise, but it means archaeologists and curators now get to do some cool science.