Monday, April 1, 2013

Mummies in Newcastle upon Tyne

Icy Sedgwick is one of my favourite people. Not only do we share a love for the written word, but we agree that ancient Egyptians, and mummies in particular, make fascinating people with whom to have tea. Of course Icy gets more time to visit with our old friends than I do, so today I'm handing over my blog to her so she can chat about her most recent expedition.

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Newcastle upon Tyne, in the cold north east of England, is perhaps one of the more unlikely places to find a mummy, but here at the Great North Museum (formerly the Hancock Museum), we have not one mummy, but two. The Egyptian Gallery in the newly refurbished museum houses a plethora of artefacts, including jewellery, scrolls, funerary ephemera, and a large statue of Sekhmet.

Our younger mummy is Irtyru; she dates to between 664-525 BC, and she was found at Qurneh on the west bank of the Nile near Thebes. Scientists believe she was between 30 and 35 when she died. She was sold at auction in 1825 and then donated to the Literary and Philosophical Society. Unfortunately, the Victorians didn't have access to modern scientific methods of investigation, and she was unwrapped in 1830. She was varnished to preserve her, which explains her skin colour, and her original wrappings and organs are long since lost. I can't help feeling sorry for her, missing as she is her internal organs and those amulets lodged within her wrappings, but she does has a habit of firing the imaginations of those youngsters who come to visit.

Our other mummy is Bakt en Hor, known as 'The Lady'. She lived between 1070 and 713 BC in Gourneh, Thebes, and CT scanning tells us she was between 21 and 35 when she died. She also had a full set of teeth, and her bones show no signs of bone disease. She was bought in Egypt in 1820, and donated to the Literary and Philosophical Society. However, Bakt en Hor was the subject of a mystery until recently. All of her documentation cited her name as being Bakt hor Nekht, translated as meaning 'Servant of Horus the Strong', even as recently as 2008 while she was temporarily on display at Segedenum, our Roman fort at the end of Hadrian’s Wall. A team of specialists decided to investigate further, although the investigation was operating under the caveat that her coffin was not to be opened, and physical samples were not to be taken. Luckily technology has moved on sufficiently that CT scans can tell researchers so much without mummies needing to be examined.

As part of her research, Egyptologist Gill Scott paid a visit to the Literary and Philosophical Society, a somewhat impressive library located near Newcastle's Central Station, and by chance discovered a volume entitled 'The Reports, Papers and Catalogues of the Literary and Philosophical Society, 1820-1821'. The handwritten volume contained newspaper articles and other items, one of which was a scrap of the original wrappings from none other than Bakt en Hor. Archaeological chemist Dr Stephen Buckley subjected the scrap to chemical analysis, and discovered that extreme heat and cheap materials had been used during the embalming process, implying a hurried or incompetent job. A CT scan allowed them to recreate her head, and the high levels of decomposition to her face confirmed this theory.

Further investigation revealed a mistake in naming her. Hieroglyphs expert Alan Fildes noticed a hurried water sign near the bottom of her cartonnage, which had been mistranslated, giving her the name of Bakt hor Nekht. Translated correctly, the name should read Bakt en Hor, and her true name has finally been restored after two hundred years of error. No one knows if her name was written so badly as part of the rush job surrounding her embalming and burial, but I'm quite glad that she's now known by her real name, rather than the wrong one. Before the museum's refurbishment, the old Egyptian gallery also featured a video in which visitors could watch as the CT scan of her skull was used to recreate her face, and the resulting image was one of a beautiful and strong woman. Sadly this video, or image, is no longer in the museum, replaced instead by the History Channel's short video about the investigation into her name.

As fascinating as the Egyptian gallery is, the mummies always take centre stage, and I’m glad that these women now have their real names as they reside in this cold city that lies over 2,600 miles from their homeland.

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Icy Sedgwick is a writer and film academic who lives and works in Newcastle upon Tyne in the United Kingdom. She’s been fascinated by ancient Egypt since she was eight, and her next book is a retelling of The Sorceror’s Apprentice, substituting brooms for mummies. She often features mummies in her Friday flash fiction, including No Flash and Sand and Snow.


  1. Love this—mummies do indeed fire the imagination. The mention of Hadrian's Wall reminded me of a humorous line from the book Firelord, in which an Egyptian in the Roman army had written his name on the wall and the plea, "Do not let me die here in the land of Set." The only thing missing is the translation of "Bakt en Hor" — its meaning would have been an interesting contrast to the erroneous original.

    1. Sorry I forgot to put it in! Bakt en Hor is translated as meaning 'Servant of Horus'. Perhaps not a massive difference to us but it would have been huge to her.