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Return of the crocodile mummies

Embalmed reptiles help tell story of 'The Conservator's Art: Preserving Egypt's Past' at UC Berkeley.

May 23, 2010|By Charles Burress, Special to the Los Angeles Times

Strange that no horror movie ever featured these creatures from the crypts of ancient Egypt — crocodile mummies.

The toothy reptiles were embalmed and wrapped in worship of the crocodile god Sobek, and two painstakingly preserved 2,000-year-old specimens are now on display at UC Berkeley in an ancient Egypt exhibit that marks a sharp departure from touring King Tut spectacles.

Berkeley's show at the Phoebe A. Hearst Museum of Anthropology is free, small and devoid of crowds. But the key difference is a dual focus: on both rarely seen objects and "the conservator's art," the exacting craft and detective science of analyzing and preserving crumbling and extremely fragile items that are thousands of years old.

The exhibition — "The Conservator's Art: Preserving Egypt's Past," which runs until next spring — not only displays mummy cases, statuettes, hieroglyphics and other artifacts usually locked away in Berkeley's trove of Egyptian treasures. It also describes, for example, the crocodiles' journey to the Stanford University School of Medicine in February for $12,000 worth of rides through CT scanners normally used for humans. The tests revealed that one mummy, which has never been unwrapped, contained jumbled bones from more than one animal.

Most striking about the other, unwrapped crocodile are the 30 baby crocodiles on its back. They'd been attached to the once-sticky embalming mixture, which was shown in tests at the University of Bristol in England to match the ingredients and quality of that used for humans, thus undermining the idea that crocodile mummification was accorded less care or expense.

The most obvious departure from the norm is the presence of conservator Allison Lewis, relocated from the basement, sitting in the middle of the exhibition at her work table, engaged in preserving a mummy's foot casing. (

"This is not your King Tut exhibit," noted museum research anthropologist Ira Jacknis.

Among the treasures is an extraordinarily well-preserved, 46-century-old slab stele from Giza, a limestone slab from the side of a tomb depicting the tomb's occupant, a king's son named Wepemnofret, and listing provisions considered essential in his afterlife, including 1,000 bowls each of figs and sweet wine.

The exhibition traces the Berkeley preservation efforts to their beginning more than a century ago, when the anthropology museum's namesake, Phoebe Hearst, financed Egyptian excavations by pioneering archaeologist George Reisner. Hearst, more than anyone else, was UC Berkeley's fairy godmother (and the mother of newspaper baron William Randolph Hearst). She wielded her husband's mining fortune like a magic wand, bringing forth Cal's stately Beaux Arts buildings and amassing 230,000 objects from around the world for the museum, including 17,000 from Egypt.

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