WESTMINSTER COLLEGE Mummy returns after testing, exhibit
Scholars are still trying to link the Egyptian mummy to another one in Buffalo, believed to be her son.
By LAURE CIOFFI
VINDICATOR NEW CASTLE BUREAU
NEW WILMINGTON, Pa. -- A trip to Harrisburg for one Westminster College resident provided education for the whole campus.
Little was known about Pesed, a 2,300-year-old Egyptian mummy who has been on campus since the mid-1800s, until her recent six-month visit to the state capital, where she underwent medical testing and appeared in a museum exhibit.
The mummy returned to campus Tuesday with little fanfare as a handful of members of the college cultural artifacts committee wheeled her into the J.S. Mack Science Library on a gurney.
"We are glad to have her back where she belongs," said Samuel Farmerie, curator of Westminster's cultural artifacts, as he helped secure the mummy in a temperature-controlled case in the library.
The mummy was a gift to Westminster from two missionaries working in Assuit, Egypt. They purchased four mummies sometime in the 1800s for $8 each and gave them to colleges in the United States.
It was commonly believed that Pesed died as a young girl because of her height, about 4 feet 11 inches, and campus folklore contends that she had been decapitated sometime in the early 1900s and that the head has ended up in the bed of at least one coed.
Those myths, however, have been debunked since Pesed's return from Harrisburg, where she underwent X-rays and a CAT scan.
What was discovered: They revealed that Pesed died sometime in her 60s or 70s, unusually old for an Egyptian of her time, said Jonathan Elias, an Egyptologist and exhibit designer at the museum where she was featured.
X-rays also revealed her spinal column was intact, making it impossible for her head to have appeared in a coed's bed on campus, he said.
They learned that she suffered from bone loss, had a dowager's hump and had large abscesses in her gums that were likely very painful, and possibly contributed to her death, he said.
While it's unclear how Pesed died -- there were no major traumas to any of her bones -- doctors found an unusual object inside her, placed sometime during the mummification process, Elias said.
It appears to be an embossed plate, which scholars believe was put in mummies to impart some type of magical property after death, he said. They didn't open her body, so it's not certain what the plate is made of or what the design is.
"We think it could relate to the illness that caused her death," Elias said. Scholars have found similar objects in other mummies near the heart area and other areas of the body, but the placement inside the body under Pesed's left arm is unlike anything else known to Egyptologists, he said.
The CAT scan and X-rays also revealed that some type of resin or oil was poured on Pesed's throat between the second and third layers of linen cloth used to mummify her body.
Elias noted this hasn't been seen in other mummies that have been X-rayed and it's not clear what it means. Egyptians, however, did place much significance on a person's throat in life and death, he said.
Radiocarbon dating, a process that measures the amount of carbon in linen to determine when it was created within about a 25-year period, determined that Pesed died sometime from 220 to 300 years before Christ was born, a little-known period of Egyptian history called the Ptolemaic period.
Buffalo link: Scholars were hoping to link Pesed to a male mummy in a Buffalo museum to get a clearer picture of Egyptian life then. It is believed that Pesed is that mummy's mother.
However, Buffalo officials have refused to have their mummy tested for DNA -- something that could prove a familial relationship -- or to submit it for radiocarbon dating, he said.
Another, unrelated mummy, however, could help link Pesed to her possible offspring.
Elias said the Reading Public Museum in Reading, Pa., has a mummy encased in a coffin similar to the one in Buffalo, meaning they were built about the same time. Reading officials want X-rays, a CAT scan and radiocarbon dating done on that mummy, he said.
The radiocarbon dating in Reading could prove Elias' theory that the Buffalo mummy died many years before Pesed, despite the belief that she is his mother.
Writing on the Buffalo mummy's coffin identifies his mother as a woman named Pesed with a title not seen in any other mummy from this era, he said.
The title does not appear on Westminster's coffin, but Elias theorizes that as Pesed aged, she lived a longer than normal life for her time, and she may have lost her family status and her title, explaining why the title is not on her coffin.
Scholars believe Westminster's mummy came from a priestly class and may have been a temple dancer. X-rays revealed she had strong legs up to her death, indicating some strenuous legwork on her part, Elias said.
How exhibit fared: Westminster officials say they were pleased with the exchange between the college and the Harrisburg museum and may loan out some of their Far Eastern artifacts for another exhibit next year.
Elias said the Egyptian exhibit at the Whitaker Center for Arts and Sciences in Harrisburg, which featured numerous other Westminster artifacts turned over by missionaries in the 1800s, drew about 28,000 people to the museum in a three-month period, about a 200 percent increase over normal attendance.
"It was standing room only down to the very end," he said. "The last few days were packed. Many people were coming back to say goodbye. It was really amazing."