Penn Museum preserves a little bit of Egypt for display during renovation

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For many people, a visit to the University of Pennsylvania’s Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology wouldn’t be complete without seeing a mummy. Egyptian artifacts are a big draw for the museum, in particular, its 13-ton granite sphinx from the 12th century BCE. It’s the largest sphinx in North America, seated in the museum’s lower Egyptian gallery.

Alas, the gallery closed last summer for extensive renovations. The upper Egyptian gallery is expected to close late this year. Both should reopen in 2022.

Until then, the museum is opening a smaller, temporary exhibition of more than 200 objects culled from its 50,000-piece Egyptian archive. “Ancient Egypt: From Discovery to Display,” opens Saturday, presenting an abundance of mummies, including a priest who was buried with his mummified dog in the third century BCE.

The mummies and funereal objects are displayed behind glass, on industrial shelving, lit by LED strip lights. The whole presentation has the vibe of an archaeological lab.

“It’s prettied up a little bit, but it’s pretty close to what an ideal storeroom situation would look like,” said Jennifer Wegner, the associate curator of the museum’s Egyptian section.

She designed the exhibition to highlight what it’s like for archaeologists to study ancient Egypt.

A gold necklace from the 6th century BCE depicts the warrior goddess Sekhmet. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

Wegner points to a gold necklace, depicting the warrior goddess Sekhmet, and several related gold amulets. It’s a striking piece of jewelry, but Wegner said it is one of her favorites because of the way it was discovered.

In 1914, the archaeologist Clarence Fischer – working for the Penn Museum – was digging into the remains of a 12th-century BCE palace of the Pharaoh Merneptah. There, he stumbled upon a box of jewelry dating to 600 years earlier.

Someone in the sixth century BCE was trying to hide something.

“Perhaps someone was stashing them, perhaps up to no good. We don’t know,” Wegner said. “When I was a little kid, it was my dream to find these golden treasures. Here was this discovery like what I had always imagined discovery was like when I was a kid.”

Normally, the work of archaeologists does not involve digging up a box of gold. It’s mostly lab work, study, and conservation. “From Discovery to Display” incorporates the Penn Museum’s Artifact Lab, an open conservation center in the middle of the gallery where visitors can watch conservators at work and ask about the process.

“This was an opportunity for us to bring the public to see how a gallery unfolds,” said museum director Julian Siggers. “This is an unusual museum because we actually excavated all this material. We have all the scientific material that goes with it.”

The Penn Museum continues to support archaeological expeditions around the world, including in Egypt. Wegner, for example, works regularly at the site of the ancient city of Abydos. Since 20th-century archaeologist Fischer’s day, however, international protocols of the field have changed: Any artifacts unearthed now remain in the host country.

Most of the objects in this temporary exhibition have not been displayed in many years. Some have never been shown publicly due, in part, to their condition. That priest who was buried with his dog — his name was Hapimen from Abydos (we don’t know the dog’s name) — had part of his funeral wrappings ripped off by looters. His desiccated hand is exposed where thieves disturbed his corpse looking for jewelry at some point during his 2,300-year afterlife.

But those looters didn’t get it all. Recent X-rays of the Hapimen mummy show pieces of jewelry still under the wraps.

Part of the Artifact Lab conservators’ job is to prepare Hapimen for a long-term exhibition.

“Any visitor here can see us at work,” Siggers said. “It’s also an opportunity for us to have some of our marquee objects from Egypt on display while we’re preparing for the major new galleries of Egypt.”

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