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Unmasking the mummies of Gilman Hall

A Mellon Arts Innovation Grant helps Archaeological Museum Associate Director Sanchita Balachandran and an interdisciplinary team of students decipher the history of two mummies
Posted May 25, 2017
  • (l-r) Ashley Fiutko Arico, Meg Swaney, and Hopkins Archaeological Museum Associate Director Sanchita Balchandran examine a painted wooden coffin that housed mummified human remains. (Photo: Jay VanRensselaer)

  • Students observe a computed tomography (CT) scan of mummified human remains conducted by Elliot Fishman, director of diagnostic imaging and body CT for Johns Hopkins Medicine. (Photo: Jordan Poston)

On a chilly December afternoon, Sanchita Balachandran, associate director of the Johns Hopkins Archaeological Museum, pointed to a scanned Baltimore newspaper article from 1895. The article spoke about a set of mummified remains and suggested that, even then, Baltimoreans were eager to know more about who the individual was.

More than 120 years later, Balachandran and a handpicked group of graduate and undergraduate students are closer to answering questions about those remains with support from an Andrew W. Mellon Foundation Arts Innovation Grant. The grants aim to spark creativity, encourage interdisciplinary collaboration, and extend the reach of Hopkins' arts and humanities programs.

"We’ve had wonderful opportunities to go in other, related, directions — that way we don’t just have a face, but we have a story for these people."
Alex Taylor

Balachandran's interest in studying the remains mentioned in the newspaper article, now stewarded by Goucher College but housed in Hopkins' Archaeological Museum, stems from curiosity. But it also stems from concern that those ancient remains — and another set stewarded by Hopkins — be treated with respect.

"The mummies, especially the Goucher Mummy, are the most fascinating individuals in this museum, people come from everywhere to see her," said Balachandran, a senior lecturer in the Krieger School's Department of Near Eastern Studies and a 2015 recipient of the Johns Hopkins Discovery Award for another project that focused on the making of ancient Greek ceramics.

The Mellon-funded project will help Balachandran take advantage of what modern scientific and imaging tools can offer in terms of knowing more about the mummified individuals while informing a conversation about how to respectfully present ancient remains in context.

The Arts Innovation Grant covered costs associated with:

  • scanning the remains, as conducted by Elliot Fishman, director of diagnostic imaging and body CT and professor of radiology and radiological science at Johns Hopkins Medicine,
  • ​3D laser scanning of the remains by Direct Dimensions of Baltimore,
  • collaborating with the Liverpool School of Art and Design at John Moores University in England to create 3D and 2D facial depictions of both sets of remains based on the CT and laser scans,
  • facial reconstruction and studies in 3D printing with Juan Garcia, associate professor and director of Johns Hopkins Medicine's Facial Aesthetics Clinic, and
  • developing other creative projects and programs for museum visitors based in scholarly research to better contextualize both sets of mummified remains.

"The larger thrust of this project is to put a face on the Goucher Mummy," said Alex Taylor, a Krieger School chemistry major selected for the project. "But we've had wonderful opportunities to go in other, related, directions as well. That way we don't just have a face, but we have a story for these people."

Taylor collaborated with Julia Commander, a student from the Winterthur/University of Delaware Program in Art Conservation to analyze the wrappings for both mummies using gas chromatography-mass spectroscopy. The results will help identify the resins used in the wrappings, giving the team a better indication of when the individuals were mummified — as scientific evidence indicates that different resins were used at different time periods.

Meg Swaney, a Near Eastern Studies doctoral student, conducted much of the Hopkins-owned mummy's osteological examination. She plans to approximate the mummy's stature based on measurements of the leg bones and age based on markers in the clavicle and skull. The information will shed more light on the mummy's identity and, along with Swaney's expertise in Egyptology, help her create appropriate funerary texts for the remains.

"These formulas — prayers — were essential to Egyptians, to make sure their dead would have everything they needed to enter into the afterlife and survive," said Swaney, whose work will help visitors understand the ancient context in which the individual lived and died.

In the coming months, the team will focus on developing public programs surrounding both mummies. Visitors will see the facial reconstructions, of course, but also exhibits that encourage them to think more critically about what it means to properly steward these remains.

"What kinds of different bodies of knowledge do we need to mobilize to be more responsible caretakers of these individuals?" Balachandran asked. "I hope that we can provide a way forward through this one project and build on existing literature about how to do this work more respectfully."