Changing Planet

A Mummy Rots in Kolkata

Is this any way to treat a guest?

An Egyptian mummy in residence at the Indian Museum has been rotting in its display case thanks to a broken air conditioning system, the Times of India reports.

Temperatures in Koltaka, the sticky city formerly known as Calcutta, are forecasted to reach a high of 104 degrees Fahrenheit (40 Celsius) this week, with more than 50 percent humidity.

None of the air conditioners at the museum’s Egyptian gallery, essential for maintaining a steady sub-23°C and the humidity low, is working. As a result, the mummy-considered the museum’s top draw -is decaying fast, and might not last much longer, said a senior museum official.

The decay might not be immediately visible, but the stench – thanks to the excessively hot and humid atmosphere in the gallery – seems to be a pointer in that direction. Visitors are forced to cover their noses to keep the stench out.

“If there is no AC then other arrangements should be made, such as sending the mummy to a museum in a dry, desert environment, or having the AC fixed, or maybe improving the case,” Salima Ikram, chief of the Egyptology unit at the American University in Cairo, told News Watch.

“It is deplorable that it should be treated so.”

On Friday a museum spokesman claimed the air conditioning had been repaired, but the gallery was closed and continued to emit a rotting odor when a Times of India reporter visited on Saturday.

The mummy was a gift to the Asiatic Society of Bengal, which founded the museum, from a British officer, Lieutenant E.C. Archbold of the Bengal Light Calvary, in 1834, according to the Journal of the Asiatic Society of Bengal:

“The mummy was obtained with some difficulty from the tombs of the kings at Gourvah,” the society reported in its minutes. “The native crew on board the ship … having objected to receive the Mummy in his baggage, he had been under the necessity of requesting one of the officers of the Sloop of War Coote to bring it onward to Bombay, whence it will be forwarded to Calcutta by the earliest opportunity.”

“Gourvah” appears to be a mistranslation of the tombs at Gourna, on the western bank of the Nile at Luxor.

In those days, foreigners were willy-nilly dragging mummies and other antiquities out of Egypt with little regard for scholarship or preservation.  Egyptian authorities are still trying to get some of those objects back.

I last visited the Indian Museum in 2011. Its collection is huge and the place inspires real affection.

At that time, however, the museum had done a dismal job of communicating to the public the context and significance of the objects on display, and maintenance appeared terrible. A 2,000-year-old stone lion from the Ashokan period was severely damaged during a recent renovation, the Art Newspaper reported.

According to a 2013 audit report, inspectors “observed significant shortcomings in the functioning of [India’s] Museums in relation to acquisition, documentation and conservation of acquired art objects.”

The museum has one of the biggest collections in Asia, with a strong emphasis on natural history. The archaeology collection includes pieces from prehistoric times to the Mogul period, including antiquities from Mohenjo Daro and the Harappan civilization.

The museum celebrated its 200th anniversary in February of this year, with a nice facelift and many renovated galleries.

Those efforts apparently didn’t extend to the Egyptian gallery.

“Significantly,” Krishnendu Bandyopadhyay of the Times of India reported, “the offices of the museum officials do not have malfunctioning ACs.”


Dan Morrison is a contributor to National Geographic Voices. From 2007 to 2012 he reported for National Geographic News from South Asia, Africa, and the Middle East, filing dispatches on climate change, conflict, the environment, and antiquities. Dan is author of The Black Nile , a nonfiction account of his 3,600-mile journey down the length of the White Nile through Uganda, Sudan, and Egypt. The Daily Beast called The Black Nile "a masterful narrative of investigative reportage, travel writing, and contemporary history," and The Village Voice named it one of the Ten Best of 2010. Dan was a 2013 United Nations Foundation Global Health Fellow. Currently at work on a book about the Ganges River, Dan also contributes to the New York Times, POLITICO Magazine, Slate, The Arabist Network and the Dhaka Tribune. To contact Dan please see his website.
  • Siddhartha Bonnerjee

    Very shocking news. Proves callousness of the total persons in-charge. Probably don’t have any idea about the importance of the total articles kept there.

  • Dwayne LaGrou

    That is just plain laziness and non-caring! ANYONE knows what happens when something biological in origin is left out of a refrigerated area, it starts to decompose. Even a second grader knows this, For this to be happening in a place calling itself a “Museum” is deplorable and should be either corrected immediately or the items returned to their proper places of origin. There are NO EXCUSES for this, EVER!!!

  • Dr Jasmine Day

    I come from a place in which ancient Egypt is hugely popular, yet we have no complete mummies or coffins in our museum’s collection. People here would be wildly enthusiastic to receive something so wonderful as a mummy. To think that another museum would take a mummy for granted and treat it so badly just goes to show that some authorities have no idea of the value of what they possess. Some people don’t deserve museums. A pity that Egypt lacks the power and resources to simply confiscate a mummy under such circumstances.

  • Mandip Kaur Sandher

    The universe does not make mistakes it stages scenes for further exploration, or investigation. A stage perhaps we have all agreed upon for co-creating reality and comprehending the big picture.

    The words Gurvah, Gourna or Gurab all have linguistic clues to a deeper connection with India. The mummy was “gifted” for a reason to explore. Gur means lion cub in Hebrew but in Sanskrit means to lift up make effort or raise. Raise what? Our consciousness of understanding the larger reality of events. Once the meaning of an object is understood, the lesson is learned.

    Humanity were gifted Gurbani (note Gur) which means from the teachers mouth bani means word/shabad/logos. The Sikh (means learner) “living entity” of wisdom scripture has many answers or will connect the reader to the real history of who the Egyptians were. Words like Ramses, Karnak (sounds like Karnataka) the root Kar means Creator. Ek (1) OngKar i.e. One Timeless Creator is the first word of Scripture of Sikhs. Ka means supreme soul in Egyptian hieroglyphics and Ka in Sanskrit means What or Who? Aman-Ra was a God, but Aman is a Punjabi name. I smell a pun or 2 unfolding in this sneaky Universe.

    So question is WHO is playing this Divine Comedy? We are all Co-Creators of reality. Shiva/Mind and Shakti/Matter a dance, find the script maker and then co-create more consciously. I would not be happy if someone dug up my bones and put them on show for all to see, for what? Do we not have enough “living” things to appreciate in this beautiful world?

    This is when we realize the mummy should not be kept any longer and definitely not in that state. Sometimes it is healthy to allow the old to be put to rest, so the new creative energies can begin to flow forward, through us all.

    India is a mystery only to those who do not see the big picture. I was born in the UK and learned about the connections via the British path. Maharaja Duleep Singh son of Lion of Punjab marries Egyptian Bamba … hint, hint. Much fun unfolding. Have a great journey exploring and uncovering the bits and pieces latent for our discovery!

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