10 December 2011

What's In A Name?

O you who carries off the souls of the living, O you who cuts off shadows,
O all you gods who are over the living, come, bring you Osiris-Nesmin's soul to him*

This prayer was written in Egyptian hieroglyphics on the outer coffin (left) of a priest named Nes-Min ('He belongs to [the god] Min') who died around the year 300 BCE, was embalmed, and his mummy placed within.  'Nesmin' is a common name in this period -- not a name associated with the elite but with men of the middling sort.  Let's say, the kind of men who are soon forgotten.

Now, thanks to some fine forensic work in Belgrade, this particular Nesmin will long be remembered: he's not any more an anonymous mummy or a name without a history but, once again, an individual with an identity -- and even his own 'photograph'. After all, how do you identify a person today?  With a name, sex (M or F), age, place of birth, father's/mother's name, profession, race, citizenship status, and a portrait photograph.  

Our Nesmin's now got it all. 

But that's not how he started out.  Actually, he's been hanging around Belgrade Museum since 1888, one small part of a mass of looted material that came from the necropolis of Akhmim, a town some 200 km downstream of Luxor, once known for its colossal temple dedicated to Min, god of fertility.  Literally tons of illegally excavated stuff was put on the market in the 1880s and ended up scattered in museums throughout the world.  

For the next 104 years, no one even bothered to read his name.  He was in and out of storage, sometimes put on show but more often ignored.  Not a lucky mummy, his coffin was opened and his body displayed just in time for the outbreak of World War I.  When the Austro-Hungarian Danubian flotilla shelled Belgrade, they hit the museum, shattering his glass case (left).  Maybe he was lucky after all: he went back into storage, broken glass and all, until the coffin was finally reopened for scientific study in 1993.

Philosophers to the rescue

In that year, Prof. Branislav Andelkovic of the Faculty of Philosophy, University of Belgrade, started a systemic, multidisciplinary, non-destructive research project that is still ongoing.  'The Belgrade Mummy', as it was then known, got the works: X-rays, bacteriological studies, DNA analysis, and, finally, Computerized Tomography (CT) scanning.  Still, it was only in 2005 that they discovered his true name.  Not all of his information was preserved on the coffin.  With really good luck, a limestone stela from Akhmim, also dated ca 300 BCE (Cairo CG 22053) happens to fill in the gaps: the owner of both stela and coffin is Nesmin, son of Djedhor (father) and Chay-Hathor-Imw (mother), grandson of Wennefer, great grandson of Djedhor. 

Nesmin's Identity Card

Name: Nesmin
Sex: male (confirmed by X-ray and DNA)
Date of Birth: ca 350 BCE (he was about 50 when mummified)
Place of Birth: Akhmim (confirmed by the stela)
Father's Name: Djedhor (on the stela)
Mother's Name: Chay-Hathor-Imw (both coffin and stela; an unusual name which confirms that coffin and stela belonged to the same man)
Profession: sma priest, a priest responsible for dressing the divine cult statue
Height: about 165 cm (X-ray)

And then his personal portrait

Forensic facial reproduction was used to reproduce, with the highest possible degree of accuracy, how Nesmin looked when he was alive.  The 3-D digital reconstruction method began with a CT scan of Nesmin's skull. The skull's 'architecture' is the most important determinant of a person's facial features. 

Once a skull model is made, a dataset for tissue depth is selected, based on Nesmin's sex, age, height, life-style and living environment.  Since, even today, we don't know for certain the anthropological race of the ancient Egyptians, a more generalized tissue depth was chosen for that factor.  Next, virtual pegs representing tissue-depth markers were located in crucial points of the skull.  Musculature and tissue was then added and built up following these markers. 

The fleshy features of the nose, lips, and eyes are also extrapolated from the skull, and the texture and colour of the skin added last.  In Nesmin's case, art from the era in which he lived gave added insight into skin and eye colour as well as his 'hair style' (bald as a billiard ball) -- because Egyptian priests are shown with cleanly-shaven heads. 

So, this is Nesmin's portrait as painted by computer with the important aid of human reconstruction artists.  Forensic artists have to deal with a number of unknowable variations (e.g. facial fatness, ear shape, wrinkles), but the final reconstruction produces a clear enough similarity so that, if you met Nesmin coming down the street, you'd think you already knew him from somewhere, at least by sight.  A little bit, perhaps, like first meeting one of your Facebook friends in person. 

Nesmin's last secret

Tucked under his left arm, still literally under wraps, X-rays show a thick papyrus roll written in a fine clear hieroglyphic hand.  This is Nesmin's personal copy of the Book of the Dead.  The exciting project now is to unroll and translate this 'book'.  Perhaps the text will contain more of the very rare prayer (top of this post) that the priest chose for his outer coffin :
Bring Osiris-Nesmin's soul to him that it may unite with his body, that his heart may be glad, that his soul may come to his body and to his heart. 
Induct his soul into his body and into his heart, provide his soul with his body and with his heart.*
And this, I'd like to think, is what the Belgrade researchers may have done for him.

*Spell 191 R, Book of the Dead (translation T.G. Allen)

The major source is B. Andelkovic & J. Harker, "Identity Restored: Nesmin's Forensic Facial Reconstruction in Context", UDK7.032 (497.11) 902:004, announced on ANE-list 9 December 2011.  A free download is available here: http://www.anthroserbia.org/Content/PDF/Articles/a52344c33d504835b5511c5aa6332198.pdf


Top left: Coffin of Nesmin on display in the Archaeological Collection of the University of Belgrade.  Photo: eKapija, Belgrade

Middle: The Belgrade Museum's mummy room after the Austro-Hungarian bombardment (1914).  Photo via  serbianforum

Below: Phases of Nesmin's forensic facial reconstruction, frontal view and side view.  Photo: Andelkovic & Harker, "Identity Restored: Nesmin's Forensic Facial Reconstruction in Context" (@link above), Fig. 1, Fig. 2 (facial reconstructions ©Joshua Harker info@joshharker.com.


  1. This is fabulous. Nes-Min lives!

  2. Anonymous4/11/17 03:31

    I saw Nes-Mins book of the dead scroll online, I was wondering what it meant!


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