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Mummy Just Spent 50 Years in Attic : At 3500, She's All Wrapped Up in California

May 31, 1988|CHARLES HILLINGER | Times Staff Writer

SAN JOSE — Thothmea, an ancient Egyptian priestess, now calls California home. She's a 3,500-year-old mummy.

Thothmea languished in the attic of an upstate New York home for 50 years until she was sold seven months ago and flown to the Rosicrucian Egyptian Museum in San Jose. The museum, established in 1932, houses one of the largest collections of ancient Egyptian artifacts in the nation.

Thothmea was not a major historical figure as mummies go. She was one of 39 mummies of royal and priestly figures found in 1881 in a tomb on the site of ancient Thebes. Hieroglyphic inscriptions on her coffin identified Thothmea as a priestess who dedicated her life to the service of Isis, one of the most important goddesses of ancient Egypt.

She arrived in America in August, 1888, as a gift to the U.S. minister to Egypt from a high Egyptian official. The diplomat presented the 4-foot-2-inch mummy to a museum in Round Lake, N.Y.

"As the mummy was carried into the museum in its coffin an organist played a lively number," a newspaper account from the day said. "Then a choir of 40 girls sang a hymn that began: 'AWAKE! AWAKE!' " and the mummy was read poetry.

After that glorious new beginning, Thothmea was acquired by a man in upstate New York. His daughter, Inez Sewell, does not know how her father obtained Thothmea. Sewell knows only that she inherited the mummy and was trying to find a home for her when she learned about the Rosicrucian museum. Thothmea was sold for an undisclosed amount.

Thothmea joins eight other mummies in the museum collection, which includes ornate mummy cases decorated in colorful paintings of the highlights from the person's life, as well as mummies and mummy cases of cats, lambs, falcons, a baboon and other birds and animals.

Rosicrucians' Belief

The Rosicrucians' interest in Egyptian artifacts has roots in the ancient Egyptian origins of its philosophy. The group, which claims 250,000 members and has its international headquarters in San Jose, draws on mysticism, philosophy and science and generally believes that all things are permeated by a pantheistic "god spirit."

The museum also contains exhibit cases filled with amulets and scarabs from ancient tombs as well as figurines, toys, jewelry and models of King Tutankhamen's tomb and the great pyramid of Cheops. There also are alabaster canopic jars containing various brains, hearts, intestines, stomachs, livers and gallbladders of the mummified dead.

Ancient Egyptians believed in immortality. Bodies were mummified to preserve them for resurrection and the vital organs were essential for the return to life. They were removed, put into jars filled with palm oil and placed next to the coffin holding the mummy inside the tomb.

Another treasure in the collection is a replica of the Great Rosetta stone inscribed in ancient Egyptian and ancient Greek. Found by an officer in Napoleon's army in 1799, the original stone was the key used ti unlock the meaning of Egyptian hieroglyphics.

The museum also displays a full-size replica of the Egyptian tomb of a noble who lived in 2000 BC, surrounded by walls covered in hieroglyphics and paintings. It is the only tomb of its kind in this country.

While the Rosicrucian Museum has the largest number of Egyptian mummies on the West Coast, Chicago's Field Museum has perhaps the largest collection in the nation with 26. Adding to those collections is a difficult task today, largely because Egypt no longer permits them--or any of its antiquities--to leave the country permanently.

"I have about 200 entries so far and believe there are probably a total of about 300 Egyptian mummies in this country," said Art Aufderheide, 65, a professor of pathology at the University of Minnesota-Duluth Medical School who is establishing a registry of mummies in the United States. "Nearly all of them came here in the late 1800s and early 1900s during a period of Egyptomania when there was great public interest in mummies."

Rosicrucian Museum Curator Dale H. Jordan, 33, said that if anyone else has a mummy stored away in an attic, garage or basement, he would be most happy to know.

"You never know where or when you might find a mummy," Jordan said. "We acquired Usermontu, a priest who died in 630 BC, by sheer fluke. We bought two sealed mummy coffins from, of all places, Nieman-Marcus in Texas in 1971 and, lo and behold, Usermontu was in one of the boxes. The museum paid $15,000 for both mummy cases. The mummy was a bonus."

Usermontu, in an excellent state of preservation, lies in a glass case in the San Jose museum with his tongue sticking out as though he were speaking.

The museum, erected in 1966 to replace the original structure, is built in the style of an Egyptian temple and features at its entrance a reproduction of the Thebes Avenue of Ram Sphinxes.

Jay Bisno, 48, archeologist at the Los Angeles County Museum of Natural History, said the museum is "the place to see Egyptian objects and to get the feel for ancient Egypt. Anytime I'm in San Jose I visit the museum."

Owns Five

The Los Angeles museum, Bisno said, has five Egyptian mummies, one on exhibit and four loaned out--two to the San Diego Museum of Man, one to the Jacksonville (Florida) Children's Museum and one to the University of Arizona's Flandrau Planetarium.

Raymond Shubinski, 37, director of Flandrau, said he borrowed one of the mummies from the Los Angeles museum as an exhibit to go along with a planetarium show on the ancient Egyptian concept of astronomy.

As Prof. Aufderheide said, "You find mummies in some of the strangest places besides museums--in public libraries, art institutes, in private homes and in an Arizona planetarium."

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