Our Lady of the Nile: Florida’s Egyptian Mummy

So how did an Egyptian mummy known as “Our Lady of the Nile” get to be exhibited in the small Museum of History in St Petersburg, Florida . . . ?

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Our Lady of the Nile, St Petersburg Museum of History

In 1922, a carnival operator was staging shows along the Mississippi River, in which he exhibited a number of exotic items, including a mummy that had been brought from Egypt. At that time, mummies were not unusual at such exhibits–thousands of mummies had been taken out of Egypt to Europe and North America.

When the boat carrying the traveling carnival’s equipment reached Tampa Bay, the Captain discovered that he did not have enough money on hand to pay the port fees, so he offered one of the mummies he was carrying as payment. The mummy and its carved wooden sarcophagus were taken by the Port Authority. After the discovery of King Tutankhamun’s tomb in 1922, a wave of “Egyptmania” swept the US, and the mummy apparently changed hands several times as it was placed on display. Eventually the mummy was donated to the St Petersburg Museum of History.

1973 mummy x-ray photo

Egyptian Mummy and X-ray, 1973. (Photo: Florida State Archives)

In 1973, the mummy was x-rayed for study, and years later was also CAT-scanned. The skeleton showed the body to be that of a woman who, based upon the wear in her teeth, died between the age of 30 and 35. She was wrapped in linen cloth and had a stone or metal scarab emblem placed inside her wrappings, over her chest (the scarab was an Egyptian symbol of resurrection). In the process of mummification, the woman’s body would first have been carefully slit open along the left side of the torso, and all the internal organs removed. The organs would be allowed to dry, then coated with plant resins and oils, and wrapped in linen cloth. The heart, believed to be the seat of the soul, was placed back into the chest. The other internal organs would have been packed into ceremonial “canopic jars”, to be placed near the body inside the tomb. Then the inside of the body cavity would be rinsed with wine and oils, and the brain would be scrambled by a long metal rod inserted through the nose, and allowed to drain out. The entire body would then be packed and covered with natron, a natural salt, and left to dry for 70 days. At the end of that time, when the corpse had become completely dehydrated, the internal cavity would be packed with rolls of cloth to give it a lifelike shape, then the whole body would be wrapped with long pieces of linen cloth soaked in oils. Inside the wrappings, there would be small sacred carvings, intended as offerings to the gods. The mummified body was then placed into a wooden coffin, which was itself placed into a carved wooden or stone sarcophagus bearing the likeness of the deceased.

The body would then be placed inside a tomb along with a selection of items that the deceased would need in the next life, such as food, utensils, furniture, and clothing. According to Egyptian religious beliefs, the body was inhabited by three different spirits, known as the ka, the akh, and the ba.  The akh was the spirit that traveled to the underworld to be judged by the God Osiris. The ba was free to move between the world of the living and the world of the dead. In early times, it was believed that only a Pharaoh, who was the living form of the god Ra on Earth, had a ba–later it was considered that priests and high court officials did, too. The akh was the spirit that stayed inside the tomb and lived a sort of mirror life–it was capable of earthly pleasures such as eating food, and preparations were made for it, in the form of tomb offerings and grave goods. But the akh required an intact body to live in–if the body were destroyed, the akh (and the ba and ka along with it) would cease to exist. Mummification was the way in which the akhwas provided with an intact body to inhabit for eternity in the afterlife.

From the materials and methods that were used in her mummification, experts have concluded that the Florida mummy was buried about 3,000 years ago. This was near the earliest appearance of the mummification ritual–in later centuries the process would become simpler (and therefore less expensive). There are no identifying inscriptions on her carved wooden sarcophagus or her coffin, so she is completely unidentified and we have no idea who she was. But she must have been a member of the upper-middle class of priesthood or minor nobility, since her family was able to afford to give her the full mummification rites, though she does not have the richly-decorated sarcophagus that a member of the elite would have.

“Our Lady of the Nile”, as she became known, is now on permanent exhibit at the St Peterburg Museum of History.

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