Secrets of Mummies unraveled in California

From an ornate Egyptian sarcophagus to the striking preserved remains of a howler monkey wearing a feathered skirt, a new exhibition in Los Angeles is unraveling the mysteries of mummies.

The "Mummies of the World" exhibit at the California Science Center is being billed as the largest single showing of mummies in history and aims to throw new light on ancient funeral rituals and the work of "mummyologists".

The exhibition comprises dozens of mummified men, women, children and animals drawn from all four corners of the globe - some embalmed, some naturally preserved - as well as a treasure trove of archeological artifacts.

The exhibition was conceived shortly after the creation of the German Mummy Project, when 20 long-forgotten mummies were discovered gathering dust in a vault of the Reiss Engelhorn Museum in Mannheim in 2004.

More than 20 European institutions have contributed artifacts to the exhibition, which opened in Los Angeles on Thursday and will later tour the United States for three years.

"This exhibition represents an extraordinary blend of science and history," Jeffrey Rudolph, president of the California Science Center, said.

"It's a great example oh how cutting-edge, hands-on science can give us a better understanding of both the past and the present, and of how nature and culture have come together all over the world."

The exhibition also places emphasis on the techniques used to glean information on mummies, such as genetic analysis, carbon dating, magnetic resonance imagery (MRI) scans.

Those research techniques allow scientists to learn about "the anatomy, health, food or causes of death of the mummies," as well as their lives, history, and culture, said Albert Zink, director of the Institute for Mummies and the Iceman in Bolzano, Italy.

But the analysis of mummies is not only of historical value, according to Zink, insisting it has concrete applications which can be used today.

"What we have learned through mummies about the mutation and change of the tuberculosis bacteria may help scientists eliminate the deadly disease in the future," Zink said.

The exhibition also seeks to emphasize the use of mummies as a global practice found on five continents, running contrary to the popular public perception of it being a technique exclusive to ancient Egypt.

Some of the most extraordinary exhibits hail from Peru, notably a baby dating from 4,500 BC and a seated woman dating from 1,400 who still has a mane of thick, black hair.

"There have been more studies and interest about Egyptian mummies because there is a lot of documentation about death rituals in Ancient Egypt.

"But we have scientific proof that mummification took place in South America before Egypt," said Heather Gill-Frerking, Director of Science and Education for the "Mummies of the World" exhibition.

Among the more unusual exhibits is a Hungarian family discovered in Hungary in 1994 in the crypt of a church north of Budapest.

The bodies of three members of the family, born between 1765 and 1800, were preserved naturally because of the cold, dry air of the crypt and the pine oil used to make their coffins.

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