Thanks to amazing new technology and a group of talented staffers at the Boonshoft Museum of Discovery, we can now get better acquainted with one of Dayton’s most famous residents.
We’re talking about Nesiur, the 2,700-year-old Egyptian mummy who’s been a fixture at the museum since 1926 when Dayton native J. Morton Howell gifted her to the Dayton Society of Natural History. Howell, who became the first “Envoy Extraordinary and Minister Plenipotentiary” to Egypt in 1922, was given many artifacts from the Egyptian government when he retired from his ambassadorial position. In turn, be entrusted many of them to our local museum.
The mummy has been on display ever since. We know her name because it’s mentioned in a prayer on her coffin that reads: “May the king give an offering to Osiris, the great god, lord of Abydos, that he may give provisions and food to Nesiur.” We know she’s a female because of some preliminary X-rays that have been done over the years.
But until now we could only imagine what lay beneath Nesiur’s mysterious wrappings. The highlight of the new exhibition is a large interactive touch screen that displays a CT scan of the mummy and allows visitors to scroll through different layers. You’ll see Nesiur’s coffin, her wrappings, her skeleton. And it’s all done without causing any physical damage to the mummy.
The three-year collaboration between a Canadian mummy expert and the Dayton museum’s curator of Anthropology and Exhibitions has resulted a permanent Ancient Egypt gallery focused on learning more about one of history’s most fascinating cultures. The new gallery opened on Feb. 22.
“What I really want people to acknowledge and understand is that Nesiur is a person, somebody like you or me that had a rich life,” says curator Jill Krieg-Accrocco, who developed the project with an in-house team of six staffers. “I hope this exhibit will give visitors more empathy for people of the past.”
Preservation of the body after death was an important aspect of Ancient Egyptian religion; the mummified body was thought to be the home for the spirit. If the body was destroyed, the spirit was lost. The ancient Egyptians practiced mummification for thousands of years and it was believed to be an important step in a person’s journey to the afterlife. The mummification process had many steps, such as removing internal organs, applying natron salt to the body, and wrapping the body in linen.
The new gallery also includes an interactive timeline of Ancient Egypt, pyramid building blocks and a write-your-own hieroglyphics activity. Soon to be added are public demonstrations designed to help visitors learn about the mummification process by examining the role organs play in the human body. Using a toy organ model, you’ll follow along and learn why the organs were removed from a mummy and see if you can match them to the correct canopic jar.
You’ll also encounter an engineering challenge: how did the Egyptians manage to move the large blocks of stone needed for the pyramids and other large structures? Using a brick and a spring scale to measure force, you’ll see how hard it might be to overcome forces like friction. With the help of magnets and iron fillings you’ll learn how using an MRI and even X-rays could allow us to view Nesier without damaging her delicate wrappings.
Getting to know Nesiur
Krieg-Accrocco says she will never forget the day when she stood in a room at Dayton Children’s Hospital and watched Nesiur as she was guided through the hospital’s CT scanner. The special X-ray test produces cross-sectional images of the body.
“It was so impactful because I was standing behind the technician and images were popping up on the computer,” says Krieg-Accrocco, who has been with the museum for 10 years. “We were seeing her face for the first time in this three-dimensional way! I was smiling from ear to ear.”
The settings in the machine could be turned up much higher for a mummy than a human, she explains, because there was no need to worry about negative health effects. The results were sent to Andrew Nelson, a mummy expert at Canada’s Western University of London, Ontario , who came to Dayton on Feb. 22 for the exhibit opening.
“We had an age estimate from some X-rays we had done years ago, but it turned out those age estimates were incorrect,” explains Krieg-Accrocco. “We now know Nesiur was a young woman between the ages of 18 and 22. We know that from her teeth and the fusion of her collarbone. Her collarbone had not yet fully fused on the end and that’s the last long bone to fuse in your skeleton.”
Although old X-rays had revealed that Nesiur had braids, it was always assumed they were her natural hair. “Now we know it was a wig and it was unusual at that time to be buried with a wig,” says Krieg-Accrocco. “She doesn’t have any other items in her wrappings but there are some tubular decorative beads within the wig.”
Nesiur’s exact place in society is unknown, but the experts are assuming she was high enough that she was mummified. “Not everybody in Egypt was mummified, so we know she had some status,” she adds. “Maybe she worked at a temple complex or worked for a rich family but she herself wasn’t a person of super-high status.”
They don’t know how she died but may learn that information in the future thanks to an international research project created by Nelson which will help researchers all over the world learn from mummies. The Boonshoft Mummy is now part of that important data.
Other interesting facts about Nesiur:
• Nesiur’s third molars (wisdom teeth) were in the process of coming in when she died. This indicates that she was a young adult between the ages of 17 and 25.
• Despite the fact that excerebration (the removal of the brain) was common during the 25th Dynasty, Nesiur’s brain was not removed. It remains as a desiccated/dried out mass at the back of her skull.
• There is an incision on the left side of Nesiur’s stomach approximately five inches in length. Her organs were removed through this opening and her body cavity was cleaned.
• Nesiur’s arms are extended along her torso with her hands resting on her thighs and shoulders drawn inward. This was a common position for the Third Intermediate Period (1070-664 BC).
• Nesiur’s skeleton demonstrates very few pathologies or injuries, making it difficult to determine her exact cause of death. There are, however, many diseases that do not leave evidence on the bones.
The impressive and informational gallery was created entirely in-house with staffers designing the exhibit space and developing and fabricating the content. The mummy is now floating on a Plexiglas shelf with the top and bottom of the coffin easier to view. Torch lights and sphinx sculptures add to the atmosphere.
Those working under curator Krieg-Accrocco include Anna Helmig, Clayton Wolf, Shaun Hromada, Ray Vodden and James Adams.
Meet Dr. Nelson
Andrew Nelson says he’s a “permanent kid” who never got over a childhood fascination with mummies. As an adult he focuses on the non-destructive analysis of human remains.
“I’m interested in mummies because they are people,” he says. “There’s no better way to learn about cultures of the past than to learn about people. Nesiur lives on in Dayton. In the afterlife she is educating people who come to the Boonshoft Museum of Discovery.”