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Northwestern University

"A truly rare experience"

Students examine a 2,000-year-old mummy and contribute their findings to the Block Museum exhibit "Paint the Eyes Softer"

By Daniel P. Smith

As they stared in fascination at a nearly 2,000-year-old mummy, 13 Northwestern undergraduates realized this wasn’t just another college course.

This was something altogether different.

“Extraordinary,” said Anna Tolley ’18, an archeology major with a longtime interest in Egyptian culture. “The opportunity to study an archaeological object was something I couldn’t believe was available to me.”

Tolley and her classmates were participants in an advanced undergraduate seminar that combined the study of materials science, archaeology and museum curation. As part of their classwork, the students developed explanatory material for the exhibit “Paint the Eyes Softer: Mummy Portraits from Roman Egypt” at Northwestern’s Block Museum of Art.

The interdisciplinary seminar focused on the production and use of Roman-Egyptian mummy portraits, specifically a select number excavated at the Fayum region in Egypt. The subjects included a nearly 2,000-year-old mummy housed at the Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary on Northwestern’s Evanston campus

Over the course of 10 weeks, students learned about portraits and materiality; traveled to the University of California in Berkeley for a firsthand look at existing mummy portraits; and performed archival research to better understand the economic, historical and social context of artmaking in Roman Egypt. The mummy was also examined at Argonne National Laboratory, after which the students performed further scientific testing at a lab on campus.

The seminar was co-taught by Taco Terpstra, assistant professor of classics and history, and Marc Walton, a research professor of materials science and engineering.

“When students saw the mummy in Professor Walton’s lab, they were awestruck,” Terpstra recalled. “That was the moment the dynamic changed and students recognized this was a truly rare experience.”

From research to exhibition

As they examined the mummy in a Northwestern campus laboratory, the students surmised that the remains were that of an approximately five-year-old child, likely a female based on the portrait (the figure in the image wears a crimson tunic and gold jewelry) and probably a member of a high-status family.

Students then worked their historical and contextual findings into label and wall texts for the exhibition, which will run until April 22 at the Block.

“This is such a unique course because students worked on something tangible and conducted original research that provided deeper, richer context,” Terpstra said.

Tolley, who has long been fascinated by Egyptian culture, didn’t hesitate to enroll in the course. “This class has opened my eyes to a line of work I deeply enjoy,” she said .

Katharine Yeatts ’18 said she enjoyed the course’s hands-on, collaborative aspect and the opportunity to conduct original research on a rare archaeological object.

“I have been introduced to technology and a whole new way of scientific thinking that I would have never experienced in college otherwise,” Yeatts said.


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