The Life of Meresamun: A Temple Singer in Ancient Egypt
Visitors will be able to come face to face with a newly drawn image of an ancient Egyptian singer-priestess named Meresamun in a new exhibition at the Oriental Institute Museum at the University of Chicago. The exhibit will show how Meresamun lived and what sorts of musical instruments she used. Details about her health, as revealed in CT scans using the latest equipment, help tell her life story. "In a virtual way, people will be able to meet this remarkable woman and, through her eyes, learn what it was like to live in Egypt 2,800 years ago," said Emily Teeter, an Egyptologist at the Oriental Institute and the curator of the exhibition. "We will be able to ‘recreate' the life of an Egyptian in a way no one has attempted before."
The exhibit, "The Life of Meresamun: A Temple Singer in Ancient Egypt" will be presented at the Oriental Institute Museum from February 10 through December 6, 2009. The centerpiece of the show is a brightly decorated coffin that contains the body of a woman who lived in Thebes (modern Luxor) in southern Egypt about 800 BC. A brief inscription on the coffin records her name and that she served as a Singer in the Interior of the Temple of Amun. Such singers were elite priestess-musicians who accompanied the High Priest as he performed rituals before the god Amun.
The coffin was purchased in Egypt in 1920 by Oriental Institute founder James Henry Breasted. Although it has been on view in the gallery of the Oriental Institute, it has not been the focus of a special exhibit. In preparation for the new show, a group of faculty, staff and graduate students in Egyptology at the Oriental Institute teamed with Dr. Michael Vannier, a radiologist at the University of Chicago Medical Center, to undertake a multi-disciplinary approach to reconstruct Meresamun's life. Exhibit curator Emily Teeter commented: "A goal of the study and of the exhibit was to make the past less abstract by recreating the life of a specific individual. It is amazing how much information about Meresamun's life can be mined from scenes on tomb and temple walls and from ancient texts, and how familiar so many aspects of her life seem to us today."
The mummy and coffin were examined by CT scans at the University of Chicago Medical Center in 1991, and again this summer. The mummy had a "call back" in September after the Medical Center installed the newest generation CT scanner. Meresamun was the first subject in Chicago to be studied with the Philips Healthcare iCT ("Intelligent CT") 256-channel scanner, which gave dramatically detailed views. Visitors to the exhibit will be able to explore features of Meresamun's health and also to perform a "virtual unwrapping" of the mummy enabling them to see how the mummy was prepared. Meresamun's appearance has been recreated using the most advanced digital techniques. She was tall by ancient standards- 5 and half feet-her features were regular with wide-spaced eyes and she had an overbite. University of Chicago radiologist Dr. Michael Vannier and the team looked for clues about Meresamun's health and lifestyle. Dr. Vannier commented: "Meresamun was, until the time of her death at about thirty, a very healthy woman. The lack of arrest lines on her bones indicates good nutrition through her lifetime and her well mineralized bones suggest that she lived an active lifestyle." Oriental Institute Director Gil Stein pointed out that "Interdisciplinary studies, in this case the collaboration of new research in Egyptology and the most advanced imaging techniques, are a hallmark of the University of Chicago."
The exhibit includes seventy-two artifacts including musical instruments, written documents, pottery, stelae, jewelry and objects similar to those that Meresamun would have had or used inside and outside the temple. Her duties as a temple singer are illustrated by a selection of ritual objects, including a sistrum (a type of rattle), an ivory clapper, and a harp. Other objects document ritual activities that she would have participated in, such as the consultation of divineoracles and officiating in animal cults.
Objects that attest to the remarkable legal and social rights held by women in ancient Egypt document her life outside the temple and at home. A papyrus in the exhibit is inscribed with an annuity contract. It states that in exchange for thirty pieces of silver that a woman gave to her husband, he, in turn, was obligated to supply her with a stated amount of silver and grain each year. Even if they divorced, the contract stayed in effect until either the women died or cancelled the agreement. Such contracts served to ensure that women would have financial support throughout their lives. Other objects reflect Meresamun's personal life, such as a selection of necklaces, hairstyling tools, and a hand mirror decorated with gold leaf. Geoff Emberling, the Director of the Oriental Institute Museum, noted; "Our collections have seemingly unlimited research value. It is remarkable how the mummy of Meresamun which has been on exhibit for nearly eighty years is now the focus of research that is providing new perspectives on life more than 2,800 years ago."