India

The Indian man who restored a 4,500-year-old mummy

  • 3 July 2016
  • From the section India
restored mummy Image copyright Sriram Karri
Image caption The fully restored mummy at the Hyderabad museum

Anupam Sah, the head conservator of Mumbai's Prince of Wales museum, has successfully restored a 4,500-year-old mummy belonging to the state museum in the southern Indian city of Hyderabad. Sriram Karri reports on how he did it.

The mummy, believed to be that of Egyptian Princess Naishu, daughter of the Pharaoh VI, possibly born around 2,500 BC, was the pride of the museum since 1920, but had fallen into a state of disrepair.

A little over a year ago, curators discovered that the mummy had begun to destabilise and spoil - partly because of neglect and partly due to a lack of knowledge on how to stem the rot.

Efforts to get expert advice from various international agencies and museums, including the British Museum in London and museums in Egypt, did not yield positive results.

In the meantime, the painted hard crust covering the cartilage of the mummy began to crack and fall apart, with fragments and patches over the face, shoulders, chest and feet starting to peel off.

As a result, the bandaged areas began to get exposed, causing them to become loose and unravel. This also had an impact on the internal bandages.

Finally, desperate authorities turned to Mr Sah, who worked on the project from late March to April along with a team of six experts.

They rebound the bandages without using any chemicals or "external" additions - a process conducted on location over the period of a few weeks.


The Hyderabad mummy

Image copyright Sriram Karri
Image caption A little over a year ago, curators discovered that the mummy had begun to destabilise and spoil

Princess Naishu's mummy has been in Hyderabad State Museum since around 1920, when she was purchased in Egypt by Nazeer Nawaz Jung, son-in-law of Mir Mehboob Ali Khan, who was the ruling Nizam of Hyderabad.

Though it is not clear if he purchased it from a private collector or a museum, he is believed to have paid over £1,000 for it.

Mr Jung gifted the mummy to the next Nizam, Mir Osman Ali Khan, who donated it to the Museum.

It has been kept in an airtight glass enclosure since then.

Speaking to the BBC, NR Visalatchy, director, archaeology and museums, government of Telangana, explained that out of the six unimpeachably authentic Egyptian mummies in Indian museums, Naishu, is the only one in south India.

Until recently, it was believed that Naishu died aged around 18 while she was pregnant, but recent medical examinations and tests conducted by the museum have established that she was closer to 24.

Most Egyptian mummies contain no part of the brain as it is completely scrapped off during the mummification process, but this one had significant traces of her brain intact, Mr Sah said.


What made the job even more complicated, according to Mr Sah, was that the team could not use regular tools and processes, including basic examination techniques, treatment methods and usage of infra-red, ultraviolet lights and spectrometers for colour analysis.

"It was too fragile and risky to move the mummy. We had to be careful because the cloth had become very brittle. We assessed that we could restore the bandage to its near-original state without causing any damage by retying the cartilage in around 10 days.

"Subsequently, we had to take her wrapped in multiple layers of cotton to a diagnostic centre to X-ray and CT-scan the cartilage. We had to take her with great care and security, and bring her back before the sun became too strong," Mr Sah told the BBC.

Though the scan and X-ray reports have declared her "fit", some more cosmetic protection is lined up ahead.

Image copyright Sriram Karri
Image caption Mr Sah said that restoring the mummy was a complex undertaking

"We are now getting a nitrogen chamber for her - which will completely ensure zero-oxidation or further ageing. It is a rare piece of Egyptian history in the heart of Hyderabad. It thrills me every time I come to see her that she was living 25 centuries before Christ. We will ensure we keep her safe," Ms Visalatchy said.

Mr Sah, who founded and runs the non-profit Himalayan Society for Heritage and Art Conservation, said there was a low but improving sense of heritage conservation in Indian society.

"We held for a long while that the present generation owned heritage. Today, we are slowly realising we are merely its custodians, who have the responsibility to preserve it," he said.

"We will not re-create a new dress for her; merely ensure that the original does not degenerate anymore."

Sriram Karri is a Hyderabad-based writer

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