Mummy’s song, identity return after millennia

Victoria Lywood // John Abbott College

Excavated in the early 1900s, ‘Justine’ has only recently been identified by Western researchers as Nefret-Mut, a ‘chantress’ or a singer-musician of the Temple of Amun-Re in the city of Thebes in ancient Egypt, 3,000 years ago.

For nearly a century, ‘Justine’ lay dormant in the Royal Ontario Museum (ROM). But last month, thanks to Western researcher Andrew Nelson, the Egyptian mummy came to life – as a singer named Nefret-Mut.

“When we work with a mummy or skeleton, we are interested in telling a story of that person’s life – we call it their ‘osteobiography,’” said Nelson, an Anthropology professor and associate dean of research and operations in the Faculty of Social Science.

“Normally, we start looking at the bones, asking are they male? Female? Adult? Kid? How old? Did they have diseases? Trauma? We can get a broader picture of what their life was like, and, by extension, say what life was like for people around them, so we can put the physical person into a social context,” he continued.

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Getting acquainted with mummies over the years has likewise included attempts at facial reconstruction, but knowing a mummy’s name or profession would be the best of clues and allow for the greatest extrapolations, Nelson continued.

“If we know, like in this case, that she’s a chantress in the Temple of Amun-Re, it is another sort of level of bringing her to life, which is what we are trying to do,” he noted.

Excavated in the early 1900s, Justine came to the ROM, by way of Charles Trick Currelly, its first curator. The mummy is part of the museum’s world-renowned Egypt collection.

Some of Justine’s past had previously been uncovered by computerized tomography (CT) scans. Her internal organs had been removed, and she had been mummified. Her tongue had also been taken – a practice not consistent with mummification. Early Egyptians believed they would need their tongue to introduce themselves in the after life.

At the time of her excavation, two coffins and at least one mummy were found at the site, Nelson explained. The coffins and mummy were brought to the ROM by Trick Currelly, and placed on display – though not together. It was not clear which coffin belonged to the mummy.

“In 2007, I borrowed the mummy and two child mummies (from the ROM) for an extended CT project and we initiated the osteobiography. At that point, it was assumed one of the mummies belonged to a priest, so it would have been a male, because that would have been a traditionally male role,” Nelson continued.

A closer look, however, revealed the mummy was female, probably in her late 20s or early 30s at the time of death. She had no obvious ailments and was shorter than average for ancient Egyptians, standing just under 5 feet.

“All of our expectations were gone. We started anew,” Nelson said.

It wasn’t until Nelson was getting ready to give a talk last month at THEMUSEUM in Kitchener, where Justine is on display until February, that her real name and former identity came to light. And that happened by chance.

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In some back-and-forth emails with colleague Gayle Gibson, an Egyptologist who teaches at the ROM, Nelson prodded to see if there were any clues linking Justine to one of the coffins that were part of her excavation.

Gibson went back to take a closer look. With the help of a ROM technician, who photographed the coffins, Gibson discovered one featured scrawled messy hieroglyphics, which revealed the name Nefret-Mut, which means, “beautiful one of the goddess Mut.”

Justine, it was revealed, was a ‘chantress’ or a singer-musician of the Temple of Amun-Re in the city of Thebes in ancient Egypt, 3,000 years ago.

Knowing all this makes her a special mummy, Nelson noted.

“We now had the actual name, now we knew who she was,” he said, noting of the hundreds of mummies sitting in museums, only 20 per cent have an identity and a story to go with.

This discovery is part of Nelson’s work on a worldwide database of mummy studies, funded by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council’s Digging Into Data Challenge.