A new, kid-friendly Science Museum show examines ancient Egypt with modern tools.
With the turn of a dial, a windstorm rises and fine white sand swirls around a miniature sphinx, three pyramids and a temple in an "aeolian landscape." Within seconds, drifts form around the sphinx, half-burying its flank and piling up between the pyramids.
Nearby, a full-sized model camel kneels patiently, waiting to lumber into the sunburnt desert pictured behind it. But first there's work to do on an archaeological dig, hieroglyphics to decipher and a tiny mummified crocodile to examine.
"Lost Egypt: Ancient Secrets, Modern Science," opening Saturday at the Science Museum in St. Paul, is a treasury of kid-friendly activities and career-focused educational fun. With a newly restored human mummy as well as that crocodile and a preserved ibis, "Lost" has enough bodies to satisfy most mummy enthusiasts. Plus forensic reconstructions of mummies' heads, and X-rays and CT scans that peer inside wrappings to reveal crossed arms, curled spines and whatever soft tissue remains.
"Egyptology in past exhibits was not often hands-on," said Joe Imholte, project director for special exhibitions at the Science Museum. "This has a lot of hands-on activities and blends in meaty video interviews with scientists in the field."
The more interactive sections include the camel, on which kids can pose for photos, and a "dig" where they can learn about the lives of the workers who built the pyramids. Exactly how the huge stones were moved is still unknown, but pulleys, ropes, ramps and sleds were probably employed. One activity lets kids build a 3-foot-high pyramid from wooden blocks, while another lets them compare the effort needed to move a "stone" block with or without a sled.
The show, whose work stations and temple-like displays were built by the Science Museum crew, has been on the road for several years. It arrives in St. Paul in the wake of a popular 2010 exhibit that included artifacts from the tomb of King Tut. While the earlier show focused on the royal courts and religious leaders of ancient Egypt, this exhibit emphasizes the intersection of modern science and ancient archaeology.
Rather than royalty, it peers into the daily life of the 10,000 to 20,000 workers -- the butchers, bakers, weavers, grain merchants and stonecarvers -- who served the aristocrats and executed their enormous projects. Digging through the ruins of homes and even garbage heaps, archaeologists can piece together information about the workers' diets, tools, longevity and family life. Among other activities, kids can reassemble a clay pot and fit seals to replicas of wooden document boxes, papyrus scrolls and ceramic storage jars.
Present and past intersect
A historic photo from 1894 dramatically illustrates Egypt's sand problem. A century ago only the head of the sphinx was visible, looming out of a desolate patch of scrub grasses on the edge of the Sahara. No one knows exactly when the creature was carved, but it's at least 4,000 years old. In the centuries since, tons of sand swirled out of the desert and buried it up to its neck.
When it was finally dug out in about 1925, the mythological beast -- with a human head on a lion's body -- proved to be 65 feet tall and more than 250 feet long. The exhibit's "aeolian landscape" device is essentially a wind machine that lets visitors simulate the effects of centuries of drifting sand.
"We don't know for sure how the pyramids were constructed, though I'm pretty sure it wasn't by aliens," joked Imholte. "That's one of the cool things about archaeology. Our theory is that they used ramps and skids to help, but that's just a pretty well-thought-out theory. And as new information comes out of the ground, you can eliminate or solidify the theory."
Scientific advances have revealed a lot of new information about mummies, too. Adapting facial-reconstruction techniques used by modern criminal investigators, scientists have made lifelike models of several mummy heads on display. CT scans of a human mummy in the exhibit showed that she was 16 to 18 years old when she died about 2,200 years ago. Other evidence suggests that her body was found in the Nile; two displaced vertebrae and a missing kneecap suggest it was partially decomposed when found. As there was no name on her casket, she's called "Annie," short for anonymous.
Museum officials hope that kids seeing the show will not only learn about ancient Egypt, but also will see its connection to contemporary careers in medical technology, forensics, linguistics, archaeology, cartography and, of course, museum work. Many of the scientists interviewed in the show's videos are women, and even Annie has a role in piquing their sympathy and interest.
"One of our key audiences here is girls," said Imholte. "Annie was selected [for the exhibit] because she's a girl in the target age of our audiences."
Mary Abbe • 612-673-4431