Category Archives: Lectures

Visiting the local neighbourhood mummy

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.



Lecture video: Diana Paton, ‘Seeing Women & Sisters in the Archives of Atlantic Slavery’

From the Royal Historical Society site:

This is a fascinating lecture about a letter brought to Prof. Paton, written by a ‘brown’ Jamaican woman complaining about the treatment of slaves on a plantation from which she had been forced to return. The abstract reads:

“I was a few years back a slave on your property of Houton Tower, and as a Brown woman was fancied by a Mr Tumoning unto who Mr Thomas James sold me.” Thus begins Mary Williamson’s letter, which for decades sat unexamined in an attic in Scotland until a history student became interested in her family’s papers, and showed it to Diana Paton. In this lecture, Paton will use the letter to reflect on the history and historiography of ‘Brown’ women like Mary Williamson in Jamaica and other Atlantic slave societies. Mary Williamson’s letter offers a rare perspective on the sexual encounters between white men and Brown women that were pervasive in Atlantic slave societies. Yet its primary focus is on the greater importance of ties of place and family—particularly of relations between sisters—in a context in which the ‘severity’ of slavery was increasing. Mary Williamson’s letter is a single and thus-far not formally archived trace in a broader archive of Atlantic slavery dominated by material left by slaveholders and government officials. Paton asks what the possibilities and limits of such a document may be for generating knowledge about the lives and experiences of those who were born into slavery.

I like the way that she closes her lecture by reflecting on the forces that led to the preservation of this extraordinary letter, albeit within the archives of the owner in Scotland and not the family or homeland Mary Williamson herself.  As a result, it has been made available to her as a researcher in Edinburgh, but would not have been for a researcher in Kingston Jamaica.