Fascinating Mummies, National Museum of Scotland, Edinburgh

The wonders of ancient science – it's amazing what you can learn from a cat scan ...

Dignity in death, or at least the right for a corpse to moulder in peace, is a given in our time. The church no longer divvies up the remains of saints. Graveyards are sacrosanct, more or less. Even 2,000-year-old Egyptian mummies can rest undisturbed, now that X-rays and CT scans can see beneath their wrappings.

For to unwrap a mummy is to destroy it. And the most exciting discovery of Fascinating Mummies, the first major show in the National Museum of Scotland's splendidly refurbished galleries, is the speed at which non-invasive investigative techniques are developing. Crucial evidence, such as the contents of a papyrus document wrapped within the bandaging of a preserved corpse, is likely to be readable before the year is out. A several-thousand-year-old guidebook to the underworld will see the light, and no particle will have been disturbed in the process.

The point of this exhibition, then, is not to gawp at shrivelled human remains. Nor is it to marvel at ancient treasure trove. There is little burial jewellery on display and no gilded masks you'd describe as gorgeous, for the tombs that yielded these items were not the tombs of kings. These mummies, drawn from the Scottish museum's own collection and that of the museum of Leiden, in Holland, are not even all of high-ranking Egyptians. One mummy case, poignantly only a couple of feet long, was made for the deceased child of a craftsman. The rich had to pay for safe passage to the next life, but the artisans they employed looked after their own.

The thrust of the show, designed to give the visitor the impression of wandering through a temple, is to explain the practice of mummification, the culture that inspired it, and the methods by which we are now able to find out more. Every item in the collection has been subjected to state-of-the-art scanning.

And this has sprung surprises. In a section about sacred animals are displayed a number of non-human mummies: a cat (a beige linen salami with stuck-on linen pointy ears), a small crocodile (a plain beige lozenge) and a "baboon" – discovered, on the CT scan, to contain bits of random birds. From 600-100BC, mummifying animals was a boom industry. Millions of creatures were raised for the purpose, to be sold to pilgrims as offerings – an ibis to the god of wisdom, and so on. An X-ray of a cat mummy shows where its neck was broken, almost certainly for this purpose. So much for the sanctity of cats.

The feline theme carries over into one of the excellent hands-on exhibits, a computer game which leads you through the preserving process using a graphic of a dead mog. "Make an incision in the cat's tummy" goes the instruction. "Now remove the organs ...".

An adult version (not quite so much fun) has you standing at a mortuary table piecing together a giant jigsaw of a human corpse. There is no shying away from the gruesomeness of the process. The canopic jars used for storing individual organs can be beautiful, but the crochet hook for drawing putrified brain matter through the nostrils most definitely is not.

The climax of the exhibition is an entire room devoted to a priest called Ankhhor, who lived and died in Thebes in the seventh century BC. That much is known from his three coffins and sarcophagus, stacked one inside the other like Russian dolls. Much more, though, has been disclosed by scanning: his anatomy, his age, the state of his teeth, and the process of mummification, including the type and location of various amulets tucked into his wrappings. A dramatic reconstruction of Ankhhor's funeral on film might have been an imaginative step too far, but there is no false note in this absorbing and hugely educative show: an object lesson in how to bring the dead to life.

To 27 May (0300 123 6789)

Art Choice

Piet Mondrian may be the better known, but an exhibition at London's Courtauld Gallery placing the work of his British friend Ben Nicholson alongside his reveals much about the innovations of both Modernists (to 20 May). Lucian Freud's absorbing portraits are on display at the National Portrait Gallery; it's a popular show, so book ahead (to 27 May).

Arts and Entertainment
Jamie Dornan as Christian Grey in Fifty Shades of Grey

film Sex scene trailer sees a shirtless Jamie Dornan turn up the heat

Arts and Entertainment
A sketch of Van Gogh has been discovered in the archives of Kunsthalle Bremen in Germany
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
Eleanor Catton has hit back after being accused of 'treachery' for criticising the government.
books
Arts and Entertainment
Fake Banksy stencil given to artist Alex Jakob-Whitworth

art

Arts and Entertainment
'The Archers' has an audience of about five million
radioA growing number of listeners are voicing their discontent; so loudly that even the BBC's director-general seems worried
PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Taylor Swift is heading to Norwich for Radio 1's Big Weekend

music
Arts and Entertainment
Beer as folk: Vincent Franklin and Cyril Nri (centre) in ‘Cucumber’
tvReview: This slice of gay life in Manchester has universal appeal
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
‘A Day at the Races’ still stands up well today
film
Arts and Entertainment
‘The Royals’ – a ‘twisted, soapy take on England’s first family’
tvAnd its producers have already announced a second season...
Arts and Entertainment
Kraftwerk performing at the Neue Nationalgalerie (New National Gallery) museum in Berlin earlier this month
musicWhy a bunch of academics consider German electropoppers Kraftwerk worthy of their own symposium
Arts and Entertainment
Icelandic singer Bjork has been forced to release her album early after an online leak

music
Arts and Entertainment
Colin Firth as Harry Hart in Kingsman: The Secret Service

film
Arts and Entertainment
Brian Blessed as King Lear in the Guildford Shakespeare Company's performance of the play

theatre
Arts and Entertainment
In the picture: Anthony LaPaglia and Martin Freeman in 'The Eichmann Show'

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Anne Kirkbride and Bill Roache as Deirdre and Ken Barlow in Coronation Street

tvThe actress has died aged 60
Arts and Entertainment
Marianne Jean-Baptiste defends Joe Miller in Broadchurch series two

tv
Arts and Entertainment
The frill of it all: Hattie Morahan in 'The Changeling'

theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Gillian Anderson and David Duchovny may reunite for The X Files

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Jeremy Clarkson, left, and Richard Hammond upset the locals in South America
TV
News
A young woman punched a police officer after attending a gig by US rapper Snoop Dogg
people
Arts and Entertainment
Reese Witherspoon starring in 'Wild'

It's hard not to warm to Reese Witherspoon's heroismfilm
Arts and Entertainment
Word up: Robbie Coltrane as dictionary guru Doctor Johnson in the classic sitcom Blackadder the Third
books

Arts and Entertainment
The Oscar nominations are due to be announced today

Oscars 2015
Arts and Entertainment
Hacked off: Maisie Williams in ‘Cyberbully’

Maisie Williams single-handedly rises to the challenge

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Eddie Redmayne in The Theory of Everything and Benedict Cumberbatch in The Imitation Game are both nominated at the Bafta Film Awards
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Isis hostage crisis: The prisoner swap has only one purpose for the militants - recognition its Islamic State exists and that foreign nations acknowledge its power

    Isis hostage crisis

    The prisoner swap has only one purpose for the militants - recognition its Islamic State exists and that foreign nations acknowledge its power, says Robert Fisk
    Missing salvage expert who found $50m of sunken treasure before disappearing, tracked down at last

    The runaway buccaneers and the ship full of gold

    Salvage expert Tommy Thompson found sunken treasure worth millions. Then he vanished... until now
    Homeless Veterans appeal: ‘If you’re hard on the world you are hard on yourself’

    Homeless Veterans appeal: ‘If you’re hard on the world you are hard on yourself’

    Maverick artist Grayson Perry backs our campaign
    Assisted Dying Bill: I want to be able to decide about my own death - I want to have control of my life

    Assisted Dying Bill: 'I want control of my life'

    This week the Assisted Dying Bill is debated in the Lords. Virginia Ironside, who has already made plans for her own self-deliverance, argues that it's time we allowed people a humane, compassionate death
    Move over, kale - cabbage is the new rising star

    Cabbage is king again

    Sophie Morris banishes thoughts of soggy school dinners and turns over a new leaf
    11 best winter skin treats

    Give your moisturiser a helping hand: 11 best winter skin treats

    Get an extra boost of nourishment from one of these hard-working products
    Paul Scholes column: The more Jose Mourinho attempts to influence match officials, the more they are likely to ignore him

    Paul Scholes column

    The more Jose Mourinho attempts to influence match officials, the more they are likely to ignore him
    Frank Warren column: No cigar, but pots of money: here come the Cubans

    Frank Warren's Ringside

    No cigar, but pots of money: here come the Cubans
    Isis hostage crisis: Militant group stands strong as its numerous enemies fail to find a common plan to defeat it

    Isis stands strong as its numerous enemies fail to find a common plan to defeat it

    The jihadis are being squeezed militarily and economically, but there is no sign of an implosion, says Patrick Cockburn
    Virtual reality thrusts viewers into the frontline of global events - and puts film-goers at the heart of the action

    Virtual reality: Seeing is believing

    Virtual reality thrusts viewers into the frontline of global events - and puts film-goers at the heart of the action
    Homeless Veterans appeal: MP says Coalition ‘not doing enough’

    Homeless Veterans appeal

    MP says Coalition ‘not doing enough’ to help
    Larry David, Steve Coogan and other comedians share stories of depression in new documentary

    Comedians share stories of depression

    The director of the new documentary, Kevin Pollak, tells Jessica Barrett how he got them to talk
    Has The Archers lost the plot with it's spicy storylines?

    Has The Archers lost the plot?

    A growing number of listeners are voicing their discontent over the rural soap's spicy storylines; so loudly that even the BBC's director-general seems worried, says Simon Kelner
    English Heritage adds 14 post-war office buildings to its protected lists

    14 office buildings added to protected lists

    Christopher Beanland explores the underrated appeal of these palaces of pen-pushing
    Human skull discovery in Israel proves humans lived side-by-side with Neanderthals

    Human skull discovery in Israel proves humans lived side-by-side with Neanderthals

    Scientists unearthed the cranial fragments from Manot Cave in West Galilee