It's not every day I'm treated to a guided tour of an alien world.
About 2,600 years ago, a temple priest by the name of Ankh-Wennefer died near the age of 60, probably from internal bleeding from a broken pelvis. His name, of course, meant "Jennifer's obnoxious hieroglyphic tattoo." (Just kidding. It actually meant something "to live well.") He was mummified as befit a man of his station, which meant he was cleansed in Nile water, eviscerated, dehydrated, repacked with his own wrapped organs, rubbed with fragrant oils, and wrapped in linen. He was prayed over, and his sarcophagus and its decorated crate were covered in verses from the Book of the Dead. The religion of Ankh-Wennefer's time taught his Ba (soul) would be taken by Anubis to have his heart weighed by Osiris, the Lord of the Dead, against the feather of Ma'at. The writing on his sarcophagus insists he was found maa-kheru-"true of voice," or honest-and allowed to pass into the golden Field of Reeds.
There he stayed for centuries, till his burial chamber was found in Akhmim. A Western Egyptology craze was in full effect in 1890, when Tacoma lawyer Allen Mason began a months-long journey around the world in search of treasures to ship home. He bought the late Ankh-Wennefer and all his trappings in Luxor for the equivalent present-day cost of a used car. Mason was fond of his mummy; his wife Libbie, however, was not. She banished Ankh-Wennefer to Allen's office, where he lay for seven years. Mason donated it to the Washington State Historical Society (WSHS), and the erstwhile temple priest of Min was displayed publicly into the 1980s.
With the advent of political correctness, the display of fancy dead people became controversial. Only two years ago, Stephanie Lile wrote, "How would you feel if your great-great-great-grandfather was pulled from his tomb and put on display? If you're like us, the thought of it makes you feel kind of sad, creepy, and disrespectful." She described Ankh-Wennefer's lodgings at the time, namely large-object storage at the WSHS Research Center, as his "tomb." Now Lile is the Washington State Historical Museum's head of education and curator of much of a new exhibit, "Wrapped!: The Search for the Essential Mummy." Yes, the tide of public opinion has shifted, and it's okay to ogle ancient corpses again...sort of.
Ankh-Wennefer "is a person, not a thing," insists Dave Nicandri, director of the WSHS, so while he rests in his wooden sarcophagus still, the public will only see that casket closed...again, sort of. Recent advances in computed tomography (CAT scans to you and me) allow us to peer through it at an accurate simulacrum of the mummy itself. In addition, forensic sculptors have worked from a replica of Ankh-Wennefer's skull to show us his handsome face, as shown above. In a way he could never have imagined, Ankh-Wennefer has finally reached his afterlife.
Lile and Allison Ferré treated me to a sneak preview of the exhibit, which is absolutely mind-blowing in its scale and splendor. It's a great reason to revisit the museum, which already features 106,000 square feet of Washington state history including a Salish plank house, a Northern Pacific Railroad car, and the most jaw-droppingly awesome model train set you've ever seen. Member Preview Day, Saturday, Jan. 29, includes a live camel (I'm told he's surprisingly well-behaved) and presentations by Egyptologist Dr. Jonathan Elias.
The exhibit welcomes visitors to "an outstanding piece of ancient Egyptian history, [and] an iconic element of Tacoma's history," says Nicastri, who thinks Allen Mason likewise deserves to be better remembered. He was Tacoma's first and loudest booster, and "he coined the phrase ‘City of Destiny.'" Thanks to Mason and the WSHS, we can gaze once again into the eyes of Ankh-Wennefer and contemplate our own role within the shifting sands of destiny and time.
Wrapped: The Search for the Essential Mummy
through Sept. 11, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Wednesday-Saturday, $6-$25
Washington State History Museum, 1911 Pacific Ave., Tacoma