The mummy and coffins of an Egyptian woman

About the object

Image © Paul Cliff

Who was the dead person?

The mummy and painted wooden coffins probably originate from Thebes (modern Luxor) in southern Egypt. The only clues to their origin and the mummy’s identity are the inscriptions on the coffins, which give her name as Asru and her status as married, and identify her as a priestess of Amun. Only about one per cent of ancient Egyptians could afford mummification; this fact, and the quality of her coffins, indicates that she came from an upper class family.

Researching the mummy

At the time of its donation to the museum in 1825, Asru’s mummy had already been unwrapped - her mummified internal organs were originally wrapped in linen and placed on her thighs in the burial. In the 1970s, the mummy was investigated by the Manchester Egyptian Mummy Project, when her age was established at between 50 and 60, elderly in ancient Egyptian terms. It was also discovered that she had suffered from a host of ailments, including a slipped disc, severe arthritis in her neck – perhaps from carrying objects or wearing a heavy headdress - and anaemia, as well as coughing, stomach ache and a parasitic infestation of her bladder.

Before the discovery of x-rays, the only way to investigate a mummy was to unwrap it. Researchers today prefer to use non-invasive methods, and in 2012, Asru’s mummy was investigated again using CT-scanning techniques. At the same time, her fingerprints and toeprints were taken; these showed none of the wear and tear that archaeologists would expect to see on the hands of ordinary Egyptians who made a living from farming or manual work. This, as well as her advanced age, confirms that she lived a life of leisure.

Survival in the afterlife

The Egyptians believed that an individual was composed of several different elements, all of which had to be preserved if that person was to survive in the next life. The most important were the body (hat), the name (ren), the spirit double (ka), the soul (ba), the shadow (suwt), the heart (ib) and the transfigured spirit (akh).

Since they had to remain on earth, the first three required special protection. The body was preserved by mummification and the name by funerary inscriptions. Destroying or erasing someone’s name was a worse punishment than death, because it deprived that person of an afterlife. The same was true of the body, which is why the dead were often provided with a portrait statue that could act as a replacement if their mummy was destroyed. This is sometimes called a ka statue, because the deceased’s ka could inhabit it in the same way as the body.

The ka was something like our idea of a ghost. Its role was to remain with the body in the tomb and protect it. Egyptians called their tombs ‘houses of eternity’ and provided them with false doors that allowed the ka to come and go. The tomb and the mummy had to be labelled with the name of the deceased, both to preserve it and to enable the ka to find its way back. The ka would convey food and drink offerings to the deceased to sustain them in the next world, and lists or images of offerings were carved or painted on the false door to make sure they never went short.

In Asru’s time, individuals were generally buried together in communal tombs, so in effect coffins became both burial chambers and substitute bodies. This is why Asru’s coffins have a human form with idealized facial features. On the inner coffin, below a winged figure of the sky goddess Nut, is a painted false door for Asru’s ka, flanked by offering inscriptions that both preserve her name and ensure all her needs will be met.

Further down, a human-headed bird is pictured above Asru’s mummy, shown lying on a couch. This is her ba, or soul, the part of the deceased that could travel between the worlds of the living and the dead. People believed that they could communicate with the dead via the ba, and often left letters in tombs, or placed ancestor busts in their homes to encourage the souls of dead loved ones to visit.

More information

Reconstructed head of Asru
Reconstruction of Asru’s head and discussion of the pathology of her mummy.
http://www.ancient-egypt.co.uk/manchester/pages/asru 3.htm

Bringing a mummy to life
Useful article on the examination of Asru’s mummy available on the Catalyst website.

Reinvestigating Asru
Useful information from the blog of the curator of Egypt and the Sudan at Manchester Museum.

Asru catalogue entry
Manchester Museum catalogue entry for Asru with detailed reading list.

Egypt in the Late Period
An overview of the historical period from which Asru’s mummy comes.

Secrets of the Pharaohs
Hour-long TV documentary with a thorough exploration of the examination of Asru’s mummy containing reconstructions and much useful footage. Some parts of the video are not suitable for classroom use.

The concept of the afterlife
Summary of Egyptian beliefs about the elements of a human being.

Mummy: The Inside Story
Detailed account of the virtual unwrapping of a mummy using CT scanning.

Ancient lives new discoveries
How the latest technology has been used to find out about the lives of eight ancient Egyptians from their mummies. Includes useful video clips.

Health hazards and cures in Ancient Egypt
Comprehensive information on ancient Egyptian medicine, with links to medical texts and other relevant sites.

The coffins of Ancient Egypt
Summary of the evolution of coffin styles in ancient Egypt.

More information

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The mummy and coffins of an Egyptian woman