Sunday, January 30, 2011

Washington State History Museum exhibits more than the mummy

About 2,600 years ago, a man named Ankh-Wennefer lived in the Egyptian city of Akhmim. He raised at least one son, served as the second prophet in the temple of Min, and upon his death was given funereal customs the average person of his day couldn’t afford.

Given that Ankh-Wennefer wasn’t royalty, it’s somewhat remarkable that so much is known about his life and his death. Credit part of that to a late-19th-century souvenir-collecting traveler who brought the mummified remains of Ankh-Wennefer to Tacoma.

Today, visitors will get to see Ankh-Wennefer’s coffins and, for the first time, what the man looked like in life when the Washington State History Museum opens “Wrapped! The Search for the Essential Mummy.” The show is a traveling exhibit produced by the Pennsylvania-based Akhmim Mummy Studies Consortium, which examines the processes and rituals of Egyptian mummification. But what’s unique about the Tacoma exhibit is the addition of Ankh-Wennefer’s coffins and the story of his acquirer, businessman Allen C. Mason.

“This is the first time that the story of Ankh-Wennefer and Allen Mason have been told in full,” says the museum’s Head of Education Stephanie Lile, who is curating the Mason/Ankh-Wennefer portion of the show.

The exhibit tells the story of the ancient priest and his kin, and it addresses the culture of Egypt during his life and during the life of Mason. What it doesn’t dwell on is mummification.

“They just happened to have this unique preservation (method) of the body. The thing that gets overlooked is why the bodies were preserved in the first place,” Lile says.

“Wrapped!” features more than 250 artifacts, including 18th- and 19th-century engravings, ancient amulets and kitten mummies. But what sets this show apart from other Egyptian-themed exhibits are the studies of a specific group of mummies found in Akhmim, Ankh-Wennefer being one of them, and their lifelike re-creations in plaster of Paris.

Using modern imaging technology, researchers are able to see a mummy without unwrapping and potentially damaging it. That imaging, and forensic modeling, were used to create the busts that allow visitors to see what these ancient people looked like in life.


At the museum, the galleries feel like a cross between a 19th-century adventurer’s parlor and an Egyptian tomb. Historical photos line the walls. Display cases show off amulets, and one section is a re-creation of a tomb wall that visitors are invited to touch and take rubbings from.

In the gallery space devoted to Ankh-Wennefer, his body-contoured wooden coffin and boxy coffin container are displayed inside clear cases. Nearby sits a flip book of photographs made on Mason’s journey.

Ankh-Wennefer’s coffin and container are covered head to toe with hieroglyphics and art. While the container is damaged, the coffin’s colors look as if they were painted yesterday in vivid greens, blues and reds. Across the coffin’s belly the protector goddess Nut spreads her wings. Below, the god Ra holds his signature sun disc above his head.

The coffin’s head is a stylized likeness of Ankh-Wennefer. His face is sienna in color, a long beard extends below his chin, and his eyes stare into a space above.

“It’s amazing that they’re in as good shape as they are,” says Lile as she looks at the coffins in the gallery’s subdued lighting.

The hieroglyphics that cover the coffins are prayers from the Egyptian Book of the Dead, Lile says. It was a guidebook for Ankh-Wennefer as he made his way through all the challenges of the underworld after his death in 550-525 B.C.


Though he lived during the later part of the 26th Dynasty, Ankh-Wennefer’s longest journey was to come thousands of years later.

For nearly 2,500 years, the priest’s earthly remains had rested in his tomb. Sometime in the late 1880s, his coffin was removed along with dozens of others and taken to the market city of Luxor. At the time, the Egyptian government was in financial distress and facing an expensive military campaign with religious fundamentalists in the Sudan. The mummies were viewed as a way to raise funds quickly and many were sold to foreign collectors.

Enter Allen C. Mason.

Mason was a prominent real estate developer and promoter in 1880-90s Tacoma. Like many of his wealthy contemporaries, he decided to take The Grand Tour, an around-the-world, months-long trip that was popular among the elite classes. A receipt from the Thomas Cook tour agency shows the trip cost him $1,625 in 1891.

From Mason’s descendants, Lile obtained never-before-printed photographic negatives of his journey. The photos span from the Taj Mahal to the Pillars of Osiris. One in particular shows Rameses-the-Great, the steamer Mason used to travel up the Nile to Luxor.

It was in the market city of Luxor that Mason purchased Ankh-Wennefer’s remains and his two coffins for the equivalent of $400 in today’s dollars. In that period it was customary for travelers to fill up their curiosity cabinet with souvenirs. If you were wealthy like Mason, you had a bigger cabinet to fill.

After probably parting ways in Cairo, Mason went to London while Ankh-Wennefer was shipped to Yokohama, Japan, and then to Portland. From there, the mummy went by train to Tacoma.

On July 9, 1891, a few months after Mason’s return, he held an unwrapping party, according to newspaper accounts of the time. It was done in his office because his wife forbid the mummy to enter her home. Under the watch of friends, associates and reporters, Ankh-Wennefer’s wrappings were taken off, revealing his remains but little else.


In photos of the mummified Ankh-Wennefer, his arms are crossed in a rigid X and his face looks like what you might expect if someone misplaced his moisturizer for 2,600 years.

“The whole idea of mummification was to bring the ka (life force), ba (unique characteristics) and the sah (body) together,” Lile says.

In 1897, Mason donated Ankh-Wennefer to the Ferry Museum (a museum devoted to classical art), which later merged with the Washington State Historical Society. It was displayed there and at the University of Puget Sound from 1959 to 1983, serving as a research novelty and spooky attraction for children.

In 1993, Ankh-Wennefer took his most recent trip away from Tacoma to a museum in Kelowna, B.C. The Canadian journey, it turned out, was the last opportunity the public had to see Ankh-Wennefer’s mummy.

“Our most frequently asked question is, ‘Where’s the mummy?’ ” Lile says. The answer is now just inches away for the history museum visitor: Ankh-Wennefer continues his 2,600-year repose inside his coffin, the lid of which will stay firmly in place.

The museum has chosen to no longer display Ankh-Wennefer’s mummy or other human remains out of respect for the dead. “If he was wrapped, I think it would be a different story,” Lile says. But, she adds, “The coffins really are the story.”


Jonathan Elias, an Egyptologist and director of the Akhmim Consortium, worked with the Washington State Historical Society and the staff of Tacoma General Hospital to scan Ankh-Wennefer’s mummy in 2008. Elias’ project compares methods of mummification and medical profiles of Akhmimic priests that inhabited the same site during the period 350 B.C. to A.D. 100.

According to Elias, Ankh-Wennefer was in good health for the time in which he lived. The priest might have died after a traumatic event. Scans revealed a fracture of the pubic bone, Elias said. Ankh-Wennefer appears to have lived to age 55-65, “well beyond the estimated average for his general period.”

In the gallery, about 20 forensic portraits reveal the features of men and women. Ankh-Wennefer’s bust sits near that of his son, Irethorrou, who died at approximately age 45. The son’s mummy resides at the Legion of Honor museum in San Francisco. (An uncle is at the British Museum in London.) The family resemblance between father and son is strong with Ankh-Wennefer looking a bit like actor Patrick Stewart.

“His life was probably better than most Egyptians’ lives – hence his age,” Lile says. Mummification was expensive as were the ornate coffins.

But it’s those coffins, inscribed with symbols and words, that speak of another time.

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