Women Crush Wednesday: Meresamun

This week we’re are going to learn about a Temple Singer from the Third Intermediate Period, Meresamun. She is currently located at the Oriental Institute at the University of Chicago (OIM 10797).


Meresamun’s name means “Amun loves Her.” She was an ancient Egyptian singer priestess in Karnak c. 800 B.C.E. which is approximately in the 22nd Dynasty of the Third Intermediate Period. Unfortunately, we don’t know where or when Meresamun lived or was buried, so the only things we know about her were written on her mummy. The style of the coffin does suggest that she may have lived or at least was buried in Thebes.

She held the title of “Singer in the interior Temple of Amun.” The temple was most likely the Temple of Amun at Karnak. This meant that she performed music at rituals at the temple when needed. Generally, women who held this title came from some of the wealthiest families from Thebes. Singers were probably trained by their mothers and often several generations of women from a single family worked as temple singers.

Because she is labeled as a “Singer of the Interior” versus just being a “Singer of the Temple,” she was most likely an elite in the complex bureaucracy of the many other singers of the temple. Her title indicated that she had a level of purity that allowed her to enter the most sacred part of the god’s complex.

As a singer, singing was not the only task they undertook. They may have played a sistrum, which is a type of rattle, a menat, which is a beaded necklace that when shaken produced a swishing sound, a harp, or clapsticks. They would typically serve as a temple singer for one month at a time, then have three months off. While not working at the temple, Meresamun would have taken care of her household. Women had the same legal rights as men, which allowed them to institute divorce, serve as a witness to contracts and trials, and to hold property.

The Provenance of the Mummy

The mummy was purchased in 1920 by James Henry Breasted during a visit to Egypt. Breasted, who had originally trained as a pharmacist, was convinced to study Egyptology by the first president of the University of Chicago, William Rainey Harper. When Breasted went on his honeymoon in Egypt in 1895, Harper gave him $500 to purchase Egyptian antiquities for the university. Breasted and his fiancé stored their almost 700 purchases in their honeymoon suite aboard a boat on the Nile. Meresmaun was purchased by Breasted on a later trip to Egypt in 1920 for about $1,650, which would be almost $17,000 today. It was sent to the University of Chicago where it was on display in the Haskell Oriental Museum, which was the predecessor to today’s Oriental Institute Museum which opened at its current location in 1931.

Meresamun can be seen in the back of this 1920s photo of the Haskell Oriental Museum

Here is an interesting excerpt from Breasted’s letter to his wife about the purchase of Meresamun,

“Just as I was leaving Luxor, old Mohammed Mohasseb sent his son to see me and tell me he had something to show me. After many precautions and much secrecy, the son took me into the court of a house where lay a beautifully colored white and red mummification coffin, as fresh and bright as the day it left the painter’s studio. He wants 400 pounds for it….—old Mohammed Mohasseb, who owns nearly a thousand acres of land and has an income from these lands, of nearly 20,000 pounds Egyptian a year. These dealers are men of wealth to whom the profits from such dealing in antiquities is but part of a much larger income. Old Mohammed Mohasseb’s son said to me: “What does this antiquity business which we run for a while in the winter amount to, when we make out if it only a beggarly 1,000 pounds or possibly 2,000 pounds a year, when we have our lands with cotton and sugar cane and wheat bringing ten times what they used to bring?”

James Henry Breasted in a letter to his wife dating 1920

The mummy has been CT scanned three times with three different generations of imaging technology. First, in 1991, it was examined using a GE single slice helical scanner. In July 2008, it was examined with a 64 slice Philips Brilliance 62 scanner. And in September 2008, it was examined with a Philips iCT 256-slice CT scanner, which has never been used on an Egyptian mummy. All examinations took place at the University of Chicago Medical Center in the Department of Radiology.

Mummy Decoration

The mummy would have been inside one or even two coffins, but these seem to be lost. These would have been anthropoid coffins, which would have been painted. Like Hornedjitef’s coffins which we talked about on Monday, the outer coffin would probably have been plain, while the inner coffin/coffins would have been vividly decorated.

The mummy itself was covered in cartonnage, which is composed of layers of fabric, glue, and plaster. The cartonnage is 63 inches or 1.6 meters long. The coffin shell was formed over a temporary inner core made of mud and straw. After the shell was complete, the wrapped mummy was inserted in the case through the back and then the back seam was laced up. A separate footboard was attached, and the entire case was covered with another thin layer of plaster. Several wooden boards were placed at the feet, which would allow the mummy to stand up when it was nested in the coffins.

This was then decorated with images to ensure her success in the afterlife. An idealized version of her face is painted yellow, which could symbolize that she will be like the god with golden skin (but could not afford actual gold paint), or it was simply meant to imitate her skin tone. The majority of the other decorations of the coffin allude to life after death in an effort to protect Meresamun.

The head was decorated with a headband of flower petals and the wings of a protective vulture. The vulture headdress is common for female Egyptians to wear, though it was usually associated with Queens in the New Kingdom. She wears a wide broad collar across her chest, which could seem to depict a floral garland rather than a beaded necklace. Below are the four sons of Horus, appearing as wrapped mummies. These are Quebehsenuef, the hawk-headed god who guarded the intestines, Duamutef, the jackal-head god who guarded the stomach, Imseti, the human formed god who guarded the liver, and Hapy the ape-headed god who guarded the lungs. In between these gods is a large representation of either the god Horus or Ra, as a falcon with outstretched wings. He has a sun disc on his head and is holding a shen sign in each talon.

Next, there are two winged serpents with sun disks on their head and Eyes of Horus in front of them. These both symbolize health, regenerations, and protection. Below are two rams, which may be a pun for the word soul, which sounds the same in ancient Egyptian, an image of the god Khnum, one of the original creator gods, or the god Banebdjed, who was associated with the soul of Osiris.

The very bottom is painted with a variety of symbols important for the Egyptian religion. The symbol for the west, which is the area of the setting or dying sun, is associated with the land of the deceased. The djed pillar symbolizes the backbone of the god Osiris. The tjet, or Isis knot, symbolizes health and well-being. The symbol of the east, the realm of the reborn sun, symbolizes the land of the living. Two images of the jackal god, Wepwawet, who is the protector of the necropolis, are on the feet. Finally, there is an image of a leaping bull, which is a symbol of fertility, on the footboard of the coffin.

After the cartonnage was painted it was then varnished. This has yellowed over time, including making her skin tone look darker than it was originally. Interestingly the artist who painted this cartonnage made some mistakes. On each side of her head, there are dribbles of blue paint that extend beyond the outline of her wig. The paint must have dried this way, indicating that the mummy was laid on her back. This may indicate that this burial was a rush job, or at the very least the artist didn’t think that Meresamun would mind a few mistakes.

After the cartonnage was painted it was then varnished. This has yellowed over time, including making her skin tone look darker than it was originally. Interestingly the artist who painted this cartonnage made some mistakes. On each side of her head, there are dribbles of blue paint that extend beyond the outline of her wig. The paint must have dried this way, indicating that the mummy was laid on her back. This may indicate that this burial was a rush job, or at the very least the artist didn’t think that Meresamun would mind a few mistakes.

There is an inscription along the legs of Meresamun which reads as follows:

“A gift which the king gives to Re-Horakhty-Atum, Lord of the Two Lands and Heliopolis [and to] Ptah-Sokar-Osiris, Lord of Shechet, and Wennefer (a form of Osiris), Lord of the Sacred Land (ie: the Necropolis), the Great God, Lord of Heaven that he [the king] may give funerary offerings to the Osiris, the Singer in the Interior of the Temple of Amun, Meresamun, the One Beneficial to Amun, justified.”

After the cartonnage and coffin were completed, her body would have likely been transported to a roughly hewn undecorated group tomb chiseled into a limestone hillside on the West bank of Thebes, which was a common practice during this time.


Meresamun was the center of an exhibition at the University of Chicago called “The Life of Meresamun: A Temple Singer in Ancient Egypt.” This ran from February 10th to December 6th, 2009. This exhibition was put together by Curator Emily Teeter.

The exhibition consisted of 70 objects, including the mummy, to provide a holistic look at what Meresamun’s life may have looked like. This included objects that she would have used at work and home.

You can check out the exhibition collection program below.

*Note there are no images of mummified human remains this week, but there are x-rays, CT scans, and reconstructions*


In preparation for the exhibition, the mummy was taken to the University of Chicago’s Medical Center. Whenever moving fragile artifacts, a team of curators, conservators, and other museum staff often need to come up with a safe and secure plan for transfer. In this case, the team of conservators placed the coffin, secured by foam wedges and linen straps, into a rectangular wooden crate. To add some fun, the exhibition designers added black wedjat eyes, also known as the dual Eyes of Horus. This was a tradition in ancient Egypt burial practices when it came to rectangular coffins, often of the First Intermediate Period. They were added on one side of the coffin both for protection of the body and so that the deceased could “look out” of the coffin and see offerings being given to them.

The CT scans revealed a lot about what Meresamun may have looked like and how she was mummified. The embalmers had cleared her nasal passage before gently scooping out her brain, as her entire cranium was empty. It also showed us that Meresamun had a slight overbite and her throat had been stuffed with packing material, such as mud, soil, or sand mixed with chips of rock and some kind of binder. This extended into her mouth and covered her bottom teeth. They were able to also examine her teeth, which had no cavities or signs of dental disease. This is very unique because, in one study of ancient Egyptian mummies’ teeth, over 80% of those studied had some type of dental problems or disease. But the entire top layer of her tooth enamel had been worn down, probably by the grit of Egyptian bread, which is also common in Egyptian mummies.

Countless tiny fractures appear throughout Meresamun’s ribcage and collarbones. The CT scans were so sharp that the radiologist could determine that the embalming materials (resin and linen) that were shoved into her chest had become brittle and cracked into the exact same place as the bones. This indicates that the damage occurred long after her death and embalming. They could have occurred if the coffin or mummy was dropped. Doctors were able to examine her feet through the scans as well. Her toes, toenails, vessels, and tendons were all intact. Her right big toe pointed more laterally, which if untreated would have led to a bunion. They speculated that this may have been caused by her walking patterns and footwear.

There were also five roughly oval-shaped amulets bandaged into her wrappings: two on the eyes, one on the neck, one on the chest, and one on her back.

If you would like to watch a visual unwrapping of the mummy, you can check out this series of YouTube videos.

Facial Reconstruction

For the 2009 exhibition, the scans of Meresamun were given to two separate artists who reconstructed her face. Joshua Harker used traditional methods in which layers of fat and muscle are built up upon the skull employing the Gatliff-Snow American Tissue Depth Marker Model. He did this digitally in three dimensions. Read an interview with Joshua here.

The other artist, Michael Brassell was trained in forensic facial imaging by the FBI. He based his knowledge on his work with the Department of Justice and Maryland State Police Missing Persons Unit on their joint project NamUs. This is a database that allows smaller police departments and families of missing people to try and identify skeletal remains. He chose to hand draw and then digitally color his image. Read an interview with Michael here.

The artists portrayed very different chins and noses of Meresamun, but both included the overbite, cheekbones, and the shapes of her eyes. The similarities between the two reconstructions suggest that both techniques have created a reliable portrait of Meresamun. The curator of the exhibition, Emily Teeter, consulted with the artists for the cosmetic features of the reconstruction. Teeter decided that Meresamun should have bangs based on some stela dating to this time, which depicted women with bangs. They also included the traditional Egyptian kohl eyeliner that extends beyond the eyelid.














Photo Credits

Left lateral view of the coffin – Wikimedia commons (M. Vannier)

Coffin, CT scans, x-rays, facial reconstructions, original display of mummy – Archaeology.org Feature “Priestess of Amun” (most originally come from the Oriental Institute at the University of Chicago or Anna Ressman)

Detail of Coffin – Flickr (Steve Grundy)

Mummy in the display case – Wikimedia commons (Daderot)

Images of CT scans – https://www.computerweekly.com/photostory/2240107584/Photos-3000-year-old-mummy-seen-using-hi-tech-scanner/3/Teeth-and-eyes (Philips Healthcare/University of Chicago)


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