A Living Reminder of an Ancient Civilization

Taken out around Halloween for gallery talks and shown to behind-the-scenes visitors, the mummy hand at the Williams College Museum of Art is an artifact that simultaneously amazes, appalls, and confounds.

For anthropology professor Antonia Foias and junior Elizabeth Hart, a biology and anthropology double major, the mummy hand was a mystery to be solved. “When my students first encounter [it],” says Foias, “they are horrified.” The personal identity, the life that was connected to this human hand has been lost through the ages. There are no records of how it came into the museum’s collection, no background or date to place the hand in any specific time period.

Foias wanted to bring the humanity back to the mummy hand.

As part of Hart’s independent study on Egyptian religion, she and Foias proposed DNA and radiocarbon testing of the hand. To do those tests, however, a small sample of bone would need to be taken and sent to a lab. To determine if this would even be possible, they had the hand X-rayed at the Williamstown Art Conservation Center.

X-ray scan of the museum's mummy hand“I placed my hand over the X-ray photograph,” says Foias, who found that the mummy hand was bigger than hers. “Was it a man? A tall woman?” According to Lori Wright, a professor of anthropology at Texas A&M University who analyzed the X-ray, it was definitely an adult. The X-ray also indicated that a bone sample could be removed for analysis.

The results squarely placed the hand between 70 and 230 A.D., which is the Roman period in Egypt. “During this time, mummification was on the decline,” explains Hart, “which leads me to believe that this individual lived in a small settlement that hadn’t undergone extensive Romanization.”

So the mummy hand now can be definitively sourced from ancient Egypt. “It’s no longer lost on the timeline of history,” says Hart. “It can be reclassified as a living reminder of an ancient civilization.”

For more details about Hart’s and Foias’s research, read the museum’s blog posts, The Mystery of the Mummy Hand, then view a selection of the Egyptian works in the museum’s collection.