The Return of the Mummies-'Eternal Life in Ancient Egypt'


Share on Facebook


The Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History is showcasing its largest exhibition of ancient Egyptian mummies and artifacts, “Eternal Life in Ancient Egypt.”

With some upcoming expansion, the Smithsonian will offer the largest public presentation of mummies in its history. The expanded exhibition is permanent and will include an additional eight cases focusing on the science behind studying mummies.

A combination of rare artifacts and cutting-edge research tools illuminate how Smithsonian scientists have pieced together the lives of ancient Egyptians through their burial practices and rituals in preparation for their eternal life. Many of the objects going on display will be on view for the first time.

“Ancient Egyptians were obsessed with life and with a quest to achieve an eternal life after death,” said Melinda Zeder, curator of new world archaeology at the National Museum of Natural History. “This new exhibition explores this obsession showcasing more mummies and more of our remarkable collections of Egyptian artifacts than we have ever been able to share with our visitors. The exhibit takes a unique perspective as it examines the lives of everyday Egyptians, their close relationship with their gods and the steps they took to assure everlasting life both before and after death.”

Two of the new cases focus specifically on mummy science. State-of-the-art scientific techniques like CT scanning and two different types of facial reconstruction allow scientists to better understand burial practice, health and demography in ancient Egypt. Using forensic tools to study specimens like the adult male and child mummy featured, scientists are able to determine things like age, sex and overall health of ancient Egyptians who were selected for mummification. These cases also feature facial reconstructions that help bring the mummies to life for the visitor.

Humans were not the only species mummified in ancient Egypt. Animals were also mummified and included in burials in an attempt by the Egyptians to fulfill their after-life experience offerings to the gods as well as symbolic food and even pets. A variety of different species were mummified and will be presented in these three cases, including cats, ibises, raptors, crocodiles and snakes. One of the most impressive specimens is a bull mummy that was specially chosen for mummification because certain bulls were believed to be the living representation of the sun god, Re. Some animals were in such high demand for mummification that they became extinct due to the practice, which had a serious impact on the Egyptian environment.

As important as the items they took with them, their vessel to the underworld was equally important to the Egyptians. Tentkhonsu’s inner coffin stands alone in the exhibition as a premiere and personal example of the importance of mummification and burial ritual in Egyptian life. Tentkhonsu was a member of a group of noble women who participated in temple services and festivals singing praises to the gods. The richly decorated panels of her inner coffin tell the story of her journey through the underworld to her judgment and resurrection.

Eternal Life in Ancient EgyptPreparing for eternal life was both a personal responsibility and an obligation of family members to the deceased. Living Egyptians gave top priority to ensuring their place among the gods in eternal life. The case dedicated to this preparation features a number of amulets, charms and other objects used by the living to help them fulfill their responsibilities to the gods and their families. Statues and other offerings placed in and near the tombs of the deceased to provision family members after death. This case also explores the relationship myth between the gods Osiris and Re through the devotion people showed to them while preparing for the afterlife.

Finally, adjacent to the Insect Zoo, the last new section focuses on the significance of insects in Egyptian life and death. Scarab beetles, scorpions, bees and locusts all play an important role in ancient Egyptian culture. This case examines the role of these insects in Egyptian mythology, economy and history.

The Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History, located at 10th Street and Constitution Avenue, N.W. in Washington, D.C., welcomes more than 6 million visitors annually.

For more information about the exhibition visit Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History online.


Visit your local library for these resources:


An Introduction to Ancient Egypt
T.G.H. James, (1979).

Egypt after the Pharoahs
Alan K. Bowman, (1989).

The British Museum Book of Ancient Egypt
Stephen Quirke and Jeffrey Spencer, (1992).

Egyptian Life
Miriam Stead, (Harvard University Press 1986).

Mummies, Myth and Magic
Christine El Mahdy, (1989).

Egyptian Mummies
Carol Andrews, (1984).

Death in Ancient Egypt
A.J. Spencer, (1982).
Valley of the Golden Mummies
Zahi Hawass, (2000).
The author, a noted Egyptologist and the director of the Giza Pyramids as well as field director of the Bahariya Oasis excavation site, narrates the ongoing discovery and excavation of the site in very expressive prose (“a face, a golden face beautifully molded with large obsidian eyes staring out from beneath the sand . . .”), which, paired with the bounty of illustrations included here, makes for a stunning presentation. In addition to his behind-the-scenes look at the work of archaeologists, the author also draws a helpful background sketch of life in ancient Egypt, resulting in a book to be savored by readers of all ages and interests. — Excerpt of review by Brad Hooper, first published September 1, 2000 (Booklist).

For Younger Readers

Mummies: Dried, Tanned, Sealed, Drained, Frozen, Embalmed, Stuffed, Wrapped, and Smoked . . . and We’re Dead Serious
Christopher Sloan, (2010).
Grades 4-7
True to his title, Sloan introduces 11 mummies or groups of mummies that demonstrate the many ways these “human time capsules” have been preserved beyond their mortal spans. For examples ranging from the 8000-year-old Chinchoro children of Chile’s Atacama Desert to the corpses of Vladimir Lenin (“the George Washington of the Soviet Union”) and Moimango, father of a still-living village chief in Papua New Guinea, he explains the mummies’ significance; how the ancient ones were rediscovered; and, in general but step-by-step and sometimes stomach-churning detail, the natural or artificial processes by which their decay was averted. Illustrated with plenty of big, ugly close-up color photos and closing with a well-designed time line and world map (plus a select list of further resources), this outing will have both casual and confirmed fans calling for their mummies.
—REVIEW by John Peters, first published October 21, 2010 (Booklist Online).

Elizabeth Carney, (2009).
K-Grade 2. 393.
Sensitive youngsters beware: with its numerous photos of shriveled and discolored corpses, this slim entry in the National Geographic Readers series is nightmare candy. But for kids with a taste for the macabre, it’s a visceral introduction to a topic they’ll keep seeing throughout their education. Egyptian mummies dominate the latter half of the book, which includes a cartoon-style “How to Make a Mummy” section. Scattered throughout are boxes that define unfamiliar words. A few jokes running along the top of the book (“Why did the mummy call a doctor? Because he was coffin”) try their best but can’t really lighten the mood of this dark but intelligent offering.— Excerpt of review by Daniel Kraus, first published December 1, 2009 (Booklist).

Mummies: The Newest, Coolest and Creepiest from around the World
Shelley Tanaka, (2005).
Grades 4-7
Shriveled, startlingly intact, full-color mummy faces fill the pages of this compendium of mummies around the world. Organized by region (pictured in small inset maps), the short chapters introduce great discoveries--from Tutankhamun to the 5,000-year-old body of a child found in Chile and the mummies of modern-day Buddhist monks on display in Thailand, sunglasses placed over eye sockets. Not for the squeamish, the descriptions are graphic, and, like the riveting photos, they will draw kids right into the science: “The brain tissue poured out pink, with a little blood, like a strawberry milkshake.”  — Excerpt of review by Gillian Engberg , first published December 1, 2005 (Booklist).

Creative Commons License


Post new comment

  • Web page addresses and e-mail addresses turn into links automatically.
  • Allowed HTML tags: <a> <em> <strong> <cite> <code> <ul> <ol> <li> <dl> <dt> <dd><img>
  • Lines and paragraphs break automatically.

More information about formatting options

This question is for testing whether you are a human visitor and to prevent automated spam submissions.
Enter the characters shown in the image.
Refresh Type the characters you see in this picture.
Type the characters you see in the picture; if you can't read them, submit the form and a new image will be generated. Not case sensitive.  Switch to audio verification.