Vivian Orthwein

The Mummified Individual in Wesleyan’s Archives

A Note on Language and Imagery
In this exhibit, notice the conscious choice to use the terms Ancestor and mummified individual. Through language, we are working to restore humanity to these individuals who historically have been reduced to objects. By emphasizing their humanity, we intend to counter the history of injustice and erasure inflicted upon them.
Additionally, notice these people, or photographs of them, are not displayed in the exhibit. We believe displaying their physical bodies would continue the dehumanization they have already suffered. These individuals were laid to rest and we are actively working to restore their dignity.

The Individual Himself
The mummified individual is male who died in his late teens or early twenties. He was wealthy enough to be mummified, but not nobility to our knowledge. He live approximately 2500 years ago. Otherwise, little is known about his life.

The Ushabti, an ancient egyptian funerary doll believed to do its owners bidding in the afterlife, was included in this exhibit to ground it to the time that this individual was alive, rather than the 1800s in which tellings of his story often start.

Acquisition of an Unknown Mummified Individual
Through the 1800s, universities engaged in a race of collecting artifacts to improve their prestige in the eyes of other institutions; this included objects as well as human remains. Professor James Van Benschoten acquired the mummified individual and various artifacts during his time in Athens, 1884-1885, for the Wesleyan Museum. The mummified individual’s head and feet were unwrapped to confirm authenticity; this was the first of many desecrations he faced in Wesleyan’s custody. The Ushabti was collected by Van Benschoten on the same trip in treated similarly in Wesleyan’s care despite one being an object and the other a person.

The Mummy in the Wesleyan Museum
Account from a student from the Class of 1889

Display at Wesleyan
The mummified individual was displayed in the Wesleyan Museum in Judd Hall from his arrival in the late 1880s until the museum’s closure in 1957. The specific context of the mummified individual’s display is unknown other than that he was displayed by the entrance, though when displayed alongside curiosities – fossils, minerals, taxidermy, and the like – it sends a message that he is just another curious object. After the closure of the museum he was taken off display and moved to storage.

The photo below shows the eclectic mix of artifacts held in the museum back before it was closed.

The 1979 Unwrapping
Despite unwrappings being a relic of a bygone era, Professor Stephen Dyson garnered enormous publicity for Wesleyan when he unwrapped the mummified individual in 1979 with an audience of professors, students, reporters, and interested locals. The archives contain numerous fan letters from people of all ages and all around the world including some asking for samples of the linen and many requests for Dyson to visit schools. A manuscript was written about his findings but was never published.

Photo of the 1979 Unwrapping

Unwrapping Notebook

Contains notes taken throughout the process of unwrapping on where specific pieces of linen were found as well as medical observations of the individual’s body.

The 1990 Prank
The mummified individual was stolen from storage in the attic of Exley by two intoxicated freshmen and placed in another freshman’s bed. Tim Abel ‘93, victim of the prank, never revealed the identity of the culprits, despite investigations by Wesleyan and local police. The prank made local news and reporters interviewed both students and faculty about the incident. Wesleyan as an institution was embarrassed of the entire affair and put the individual in storage inaccessible to students.

The interview with Weslaying below shows the way the individual was viewed as a spooky punchline rather than a person. Check out the link to read the entire story from Abel’s perspective 20 years after the prank. Vivian Orthwein

Weslaying Blog Post
January 28, 2012

Going forward, Wesleyan is working to restore humanity to the individual and find a permanent resting place. Repatriation has been considered, but unlikely. He is severely damaged and isn’t archaeologically significant, thus there isn’t interest in reclaiming him. He will never be on display again.

Baker, R. (1979, March 13). Strange Innards. The New York Times.

Chesto, J. (1992, February 25). Artifacts of the World Hidden Around Campus. The Wesleyan Argus.

Dyson, S. (1979). The Mummy of Middletown. Archaeology.

Giordano, B. (2004, October 8). The Mummy. The Wesleyan Argus.

Greenberger, D. (1979, March 7). April Is “Go For The Mummy” Month. The Wesleyan Argus.

Hentoff, T. (1983, February 22). Wesleyan’s Mummy: the ups and downs of campus life after death. The Wesleyan Argus.

Huff, C. (2011). The Middletown Mummy Mystery in 3 Acts [YouTube Video]. In YouTube.

Judd Hall Museum Displays Various Exhibits Worthy of Student Interest. (1935, October 21). The Wesleyan Argus.

Kenedi , C. (1990, March 2). What To Do With Mummy? The Wesleyan Argus. Personals section of the same issue has this blurb: “Tim Abel: Can we have a second date? The Mummy.”

Kenedi, C. (1990, February 27). Frosh Surprised by Corpse in Dorm Room. The Wesleyan Argus.

Redmond, T. (1979a, February 13). Mummy Faces the Knife. The Wesleyan Argus.

Redmond, T. (1979b, March 2). Experts Find Ancient Writings In Mummy. The Wesleyan Argus.

Tomasson, R. (1979, March 1). Connecticut Mummy Mystery Unwinds. The New York Times.

Turner, H. (1990, February 6). A Walk on the Wild Side with Jelle DeBoer. The Wesleyan Argus.

1885-86 Annual Report of the Museum

Unwrapping the Wesleyan Mummy (the unpublished manuscript by Stephen Dyson currently in Dr. Field-Murray’s Mummy Unwrapping folder in the Wesleyan archaeology department)

Robert Zavod Middlesex Hospital Report 1979