Introduced to the Museum’s collection by the eponymous Sir Charles Nicholson in around 1860, the 2,500-year old coffin was described as empty by curator Arthur Trendall in 1948, although museum records noted the coffin contained “mixed debris”. Hieroglyphics on the coffin name its inhabitant as Mer-Neith-it-es (pronounced mer-neth-it-ees), who served in the temple of the goddess Sekhmet.
The revelation of bandages, beads and other materials was made by current senior curator Dr James Fraser when he opened the coffin last year, while photographing hieroglyphics on its underside, sparked further investigation. Dr Fraser and a team of researchers embarked on the Mummy Project, scientifically investigating the remains of the Museum’s four mummies and finding more about the remains inside the Mer-Neith-it-es coffin.
“The hieroglyphs on the coffin showed its original occupant was the woman Mer-Neith-it-es,” said Dr Fraser. “But it was commonplace for coffins bought at 19th century Egyptian markets to be paired up with mummies who weren’t the original occupants. One of the great questions of this project is ‘Does this coffin contain Mer-Neith-it-es?’”
CT-scanning of the coffin at Macquarie Medical Imaging in December brought with it some astounding revelations. The scanner detected two mummified ankles, feet and toes, consistent with a single person, and had fused bone endings which suggested the person was an adult when they died.
“In short, the scans were the first step towards identifying whether the coffin contained its original inhabitant,” said Dr Fraser.
While the clues are thus far encouraging, they are not cast-iron proof of the coffin’s contents. Bone analysis, radiocarbon dating, DNA analysis and vibrational spectroscopy are among the myriad of investigations in the pipeline that will further help identify the coffin’s remains.
“For me, the most exciting aspect of the project will be the recolouring of a digital model of the coffin,” said Dr Fraser.
Those recoloured images, and findings from the Mummy Project, will be incorporated into the Mummy Room at the museum’s new Chau Chak Wing Museum, due to open in 2020.