Spit And Cotton Swabs The Tools For A Mummy Facelift

Audie Cornish speaks with Mimi Leveque, head conservator on a project that restored a 2,500-year-old mummy. The mummy got face work and cleaning done courtesy of Massachusetts General Hospital.

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If you're a 2,500-year-old Egyptian mummy in need of a good bath, then Massachusetts General Hospital is, apparently, your kind of place. That's where a mummy known as Padihershef is, shall we say, fresh from the spa. Mass General specialists took three days to clean and restore the well-wrapped antiquity this week. Mimi Leveque is head conservator on the mummy restoration project and joins us from her office at the Peabody Essex Museum in Salem, Massachusetts. Mimi Leveque, welcome.

MIMI LEVEQUE: Thank you.

CORNISH: So first of all, why clean a mummy?

LEVEQUE: Several things: Padihershef has been standing in his case since 1823. The case itself is an old case, and it's not completely airtight. So, of course, dust and things from our environment leak in there, but also, salts from the mummification tend to come through the resins that are on his face. And so his face starts to look frosty after a little while when he's been in a changing temperature and humidity environment.

CORNISH: Frosty meaning like the white salt you're seeing?

LEVEQUE: Exactly.

CORNISH: I imagine there's only so much you can do to make a 2,500-year-old Egyptian mummy look his best. But what exactly is involved in the cleaning?

LEVEQUE: Well, what we first did was to figure out exactly what was happening on his surface and make sure that it was mostly dust. And so we were able to then vacuum the surface very carefully so that we can just carefully control the amount of suction that the vacuum provides and take away all of the dust and that efflorescence of salts on his surface.

CORNISH: And then I also read that you used cotton swabs and saliva. Explain how and why saliva.

LEVEQUE: Well, you know, our mother was always right when she licked her thumb and rubbed that smudge off of our faces. Our saliva has enzymes in it that allow us to very gently dissolve soot and grime that's gotten on the surface of something. There were some areas of the salts that were much more crusty than the others, and so just a little touch of a cotton swab lightly dampened is enough to take away the problem materials but not damage the original surface of the mummy.

CORNISH: Now, what more do we know about Padihershef? Who was this person before they were residing at Mass General?

LEVEQUE: According to his coffin, his inscription says that his name his Padihershef, that he was a stonemason in a necropolis at Thebes. So he was basically a man who cut into the rock to create tombs. And we know that he - who his parents were. We don't know if he was married or not because his coffin doesn't say so, so it's possible that he wasn't. But on the other hand, it's also possible that for whatever reason there wasn't enough room to write it down for him. His name also implies that his family came from another area in Egypt called the Faiyum. So he presumably, he and/or his family went south to look for work.

CORNISH: So, Mimi Leveque, what happens now to this mummy? Will it be back on display?

LEVEQUE: He's actually already back on display. We finished him on Sunday at the end of the three-day project, and a brand-new, climate-stabilized case was provided for him, inside the case, in the ether dome at the Mass General Hospital. The ether dome is the surgical demonstration area that has been there since the building was founded.

CORNISH: Mimi Leveque, thank you so much for speaking with us.

LEVEQUE: You're very welcome. Thank you.

CORNISH: Mimi Leveque is head conservator on the mummy restoration project at the Peabody Essex Museum in Salem, Massachusetts. They've just finished cleaning a 2,500-year-old Egyptian mummy.

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