That's a wrap

Mystery of Haifa mummies finally unraveled

Hi-tech CT scans of bird-shaped and baby-faced mummies at Haifa’s Rambam Health Care Campus solve one riddle, but create a whole new conundrum

Amanda Borschel-Dan is The Times of Israel's Jewish World and Archaeology editor.

Baby-faced 'corn mummy' does not contain any human or animal remains, rather corn and mud. (Screenshot)
Baby-faced 'corn mummy' does not contain any human or animal remains, rather corn and mud. (Screenshot)

It was clear by the buzz in the packed control room that the images of the subject on the table undergoing a computed tomography scan at the Rambam Health Care Campus gave disappointing results. In fact, follow up tests made clear that the wrapped-up baby-faced “patient” actually wasn’t a living creature at all.

The 2,500-3,000-year-old artifact given the royal treatment under the hi-tech CT scan on June 29 was one of two mystery mummies that have been housed at the Haifa-based National Maritime Museum for the past 50-plus years.

Taking advantage of the pandemic’s museum closure as an opportunity to clean house and possibly shore up some items’ unclear provenances, Haifa Museums’ director and education center curator Adi Shelach and collection management registrar Ron Hillel, decided to investigate what was under their mummies’ wraps.

To make this unusual collaborative project happen, the director-general of Haifa’s six museums, Yotam Yakir, asked general-director and CEO of Rambam, Dr. Michael Halberthal, to help the museum staff unwrap the mummies’ secret.

Baby-faced ‘corn mummy’ does not contain any human or animal remains, rather corn and mud. (Screenshot)

In charge of the CT was Dr. Marcia Javitt, chairperson of radiology at Rambam hospital, who is also an adjunct professor of radiology at The George Washington University in Washington, DC.

In a video of the event published on the Daily Mail website, the covered mummies were carried into the hospital in clear plastic storage boxes, of the sort you’d stick under a bed or in a closet.

They were then placed on the hospital CT table upon sheets with Rambam’s Hebrew-language logo. The first mummy, whose external features look like a small child, still rested in its wooden sarcophagus; the second, tiny bird-headed mummy was laid on paper toweling.

Bird-head mummy scanned at Rambam Hospital in Haifa on June 29, 2020 (screenshot)

As the scan of the first mummy commenced, there were murmurs of disbelief and frank disappointment from the control room as sterile medical personnel, garbed in scrubs and face masks, mixed with the plain-clothed museum staff — who also wore masks.

As the second CT scan began, the murmurs began sounding more optimistic. “Ah, now we’ve got something interesting,” said the technician. “We have bones, the smaller one is an animal. Here are the feathers — eizeh yofi! — here is the wing. It’s a bird. Here’s its spinal column.”

A CT technician at Rambam hospital in Haifa points out the wings of the mummified bird, June 29, 2020. (Screenshot)

The 18-inch-long (45 centimeters) baby-shaped mummy (that was not really a mummy at all) turned out to be a “corn mummy” — an artifact created from grain and clay mud formed into a human-like shape to represent the god of the afterlife Osiris.

The 10-inch-long (25 cm) mummy of a bird — possibly a falcon — was decorated with a bird head to represent the god Horus, the falcon-faced son of Osiris and Isis.

“It’s missing its left leg, nobody knows why,” said Javitt, in a Live Sciences article

According to the article, “the bird mummy had desiccated, meaning that the tissue got more dense, like beef jerky. Meanwhile, the marrow in the bones had dried out, leaving nothing but delicate bone tubes.”

Mummy undergoes a CT scan at Haifa’s Rambam Hospital on June 29, 2020. (screenshot)

Interestingly, Javitt found that the bird’s broken neck probably occurred post-mortum because the dry skin is also cracked. Not unusually for mummies, the bird is lacking some organs. The heart and trachea appear to be inside the corpse, however.

According to Live Science, the Maritime Museum plans to analyze the two ancient artifacts through carbon-14 testing before putting them in a special exhibit.

“The contrast between the most advanced technology and these ancient items dating back thousands of years was fascinating and deeply moving at the same time,” said museum director Yakir in a Rambam press release.

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