How lucky am I to have an Egyptian mummy just up the road (sort of)? Up near La Trobe University, in the old Mont Park Terraces at Springthorpe, is the Australian Institute of Archaeology. They moved there in 1999 after their home at the splendidly named Ancient Times House in Little Bourke Street was converted into student accommodation. Originally established in 1954 as a way of displaying the history and background of the Bible, the Institute of Archaeology collection includes antiquities from Egypt, Eastern Mediterranean, Levant and Mesopotamia.
Last night we went to hear Marica Mucic, Assistant Conservator at Grimwade Conservation Services, speak about the conservation of a mummy from the Australian Institute of Archaeology collection. They had acquired it in 1964 from Sotheby’s auctions in London , and with funding from the Copland Foundation, they have conserved it so that it can continue to be available for their education program.
Not much is known about the mummified child. It (gender unknown) is thought to be about 4 years of age. According to advice from the Victorian Institute of Forensic Medicine, the remains show signs of ‘severe trauma’, especially around the head and upper chest, but it is not clear whether this damage occurred prior to death, or in the period between burial and mummification. The presence of soil suggests that the child had been buried at some stage.
Marica emphasized that in their conservation activities, they were continually mindful that this was a human body, of a child who had once lived, and who had been treasured by someone. It was not common to mummify children, and the face mask over the skull appeared to have been cut down from a larger size mask, even though the other ‘cartonnage’ (who knew there was such a word) covering the rest of the body was an appropriate size.
The mummy had been ‘touched up’ at some stage since its arrival in Australia. Black and white photographs from the 1970s show that the painting of figures on the front had been redone, changing horizontal lines to vertical ones, and a nose had been placed on the face mask where the original had been damaged. It amazed me that there was no record of who had performed these ‘restorations’ or when they were performed.
As part of conserving the mummy, they had had to stabilize the wrappings, and fill the insect holes. Because the ‘new’ nose was causing damage to the facemask because it was too heavy, they decided to replace it with a lighter weight one. It was gilded with 23 carat gold leaf, but it was consciously decided that it should remain distinguishable as new work. The alterations to the paintings were left as they were, as they now constitute part of the history of the mummy.
There was a discussion over the choice of materials and approach in conservation, which can only draw on our best knowledge at the time. It was pointed out that some conservation materials are stable to 45 degrees, but 45 degree temperatures are no longer unknown (although the mummy itself is kept in cooler conditions). I wonder if it 60 years, this current work will be regarded the same way as the ‘touch-ups’ from earlier decades were – I would hope not. At least now there is documentation to attest to what was done, why, and by whom.
So, a fascinating talk and a glimpse of our local neighbourhood mummy.
Thank you! Despite having lived and worked in Melbourne for most of my adult life, I don’t think I had heard of the Ancient Times House or the Institute of Archaeology. Strange, since I am still interested in Eastern Mediterranean Levantine history.
Why do you think the collection isn’t better known?
It seems to be mainly restricted to academics working in the field, rather than the general public. They do have public lectures though, like this one.
I didn’t know about this place. Added to the local must see list.
I don’t know that it’s open to the general public, except for the public lectures that they give, like this one. Springthorpe, the suburb that it is in, is the old Mont Park hospital and it does have a walk that you can do. It has had special openings for Open Melbourne in the past.