Not until the lid was off the wood coffin—exposing the 2,500-year-old mummified remains of a 14-year-old Egyptian boy—could J.P. Brown relax.
The conservator at Chicago's Field Museum and three other scientists had just employed specially created clamps as a cradle to raise the fragile coffin lid. Wearing blue surgical gloves, they lifted the contraption and delicately walked it to safe spot on a table in a humidity-controlled lab.
"Sweet!" Brown said after helping set the lid down, before later acknowledging the stress. "Oh yeah, god, I was nervous."
The much-planned procedure Friday at the museum, revealing the burial mask and blackened toes of Minirdis, the son of a priest, will allow museum conservators to stabilize the mummy so it can travel in an upcoming exhibit.
"Mummies: Images of the Afterlife" is expected to premier in September at the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County, then travel to the Denver Museum of Nature and Science in fall 2016.
The Field Museum has had the mummy since the 1920s, when the institution received it from the Chicago Historical Society. It's part of the museum's collection of 30 complete human mummies from Egypt.
"There's always a risk of damage," said Brown, who works in a lab filled with plastic-covered examination tables behind a large window that allows schoolchildren to watch him work. "So we like to handle these things as little as possible."
Even before opening the coffin, the conservators knew some of what to expect. CT scans, which make X-ray images allowing scientists to see inside, showed the boy's feet were detached and partially unwrapped with his toes sticking out. His shroud and mask were torn and twisted sideways. Those also will be repaired.
Pieces of the coffin had previously gone missing, so the mummy had been exposed to the elements before. For that reason, Brown wasn't worried about the mummy scattering to dust when the lid came off—a notion familiar to moviegoers.
"The last bit of 'Indiana Jones' and all that—that's not going to happen," he reassured before the lid-raising began.
Walking around the opened coffin, Brown pointed and explained the significance of a particular marking, the colored resin on linen wrappings and the gilded gold on the mask. If Minirdis had lived, he would have been a priest like his father, Brown said.
Scientists don't know why he died so young.
"The fascinating thing about any mummy is that it's survived as long as it has," Brown said. "They're actually amazingly fragile."
This kind of work is always painstaking, with lots of pre-planning and tests to prevent the unexpected, said Molly Gleeson, who works with mummies as project conservator at Penn Museum's "In the Artifact Lab: Conserving Egyptian Mummies" exhibition in Philadelphia.
"There's nothing else like them," she said, noting that if something goes wrong, "We can't put things back together exactly the way they were before."
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