TAKABUTI, the Belfast Mummy
Ancient Egypt|May / June 2021
Rosalie David and Eileen Murphy explain how scientific examination of the ‘Belfast Mummy’ is revealing much new information about her life and times.
Rosalie David and Eileen Murphy

A scientific research programme carried out by teams from Archaeology and Palaeoecology, Queen’s University Belfast, and the KNH Centre for Biomedical Egyptology at the University of Manchester has provided a wealth of new information about the life and death of Takabuti, whose mummy and coffin are key items in the collections of the Ulster Museum in Belfast, Northern Ireland.

The coffin inscriptions provide details of Takabuti’s personal circumstances as a woman of high status with the titles of ‘Lady of the House’ and ‘Noblewoman’, and the daughter of deceased parents Nespara and Tasenirit. According to stylistic and inscriptional evidence, Takabuti lived in the Twenty-fifth Dynasty (c. 755-656 BC). Both the coffin and mummy were purchased in Luxor, suggesting that Takabuti had lived and died in Thebes and was probably buried on the West Bank.

Her father, Nespara, a middle-ranking priest of Amun, probably served in the Temple of Amun at Karnak. Despite a privileged upbringing within the neighbouring community, and probably marriage to someone from her own social level, Takabuti nevertheless lived in times of great political uncertainty and upheaval.

A new power, which emerged in Kush in the eighth century BC and established its capital at Napata, went on to adopt aspects of Egyptian civilisation and expand its influence locally. The rulers then progressed northwards to conquer Egypt and inaugurate the Twenty-fifth Dynasty, basing its capital at Thebes.

Meanwhile, the rise of the Assyrian Empire gathered momentum. Relations with Egypt, initially good, soon deteriorated because Egypt continually interfered in the politics of client-states in Syria/Palestine. Consequently, the Assyrians invaded Egypt, sacked Thebes, and expelled the pharaohs back to Kush. Political and military disruption in Thebes doubtless affected Takabuti’s life and may have played a part in the circumstances of her death.

Takabuti was the first Egyptian mummy brought to Ireland and her arrival in Belfast in 1834 caused great excitement. The mummy and her finely painted anthropomorphic coffin were purchased at a mummy market in Thebes by Mr Thomas Greg of Holywood, Co. Down, who perhaps travelled to Egypt for the educational ‘Grand Tour’ customarily undertaken by wealthy young men at that time. He donated the mummy to the Belfast Natural History Society: a letter dated to 24 th October 1834 from the Society thanks him for his ‘highly valuable present of an Egyptian mummy’.

The unwrapping of the mummy, which took place on Tuesday 27 th January 1835 in the upper room of the Museum in College Square North, was attended by 130 individuals – the eminent men who made up the Belfast Natural History Society and their guests. Eyewitness accounts were published in local newspapers, particularly the Belfast News Letter. While the unwrapping involved an artist and a poet, its main focus was on the scientific investigation of the body and coffin. The accounts described the bandages and the physical characteristics of the mummy; from the hieroglyphs on the coffin, the Rev Dr Edward Hincks determined that the coffin contained the remains of a woman named Kabooti, which he later revised to Takabuti. A summary of intensive studies undertaken during the following weeks was published in the Belfast News Letter on Friday 13 th March. This contained information on the bandages, coffin manufacture and insect activity, as well as Takabuti’s teeth, her mummification, and a phrenological examination of her skull. Unfortunately, detailed reports on these studies did not survive the passage of time.

Takabuti was displayed fully unwrapped for four days, after which the bandages were replaced, with the exception of those at the head and feet, and this is how she remains today (see opposite). She was displayed in the Belfast Museum until approximately 1910; when its collections were gifted to the City, she was moved to the Belfast Free Public Library Art Gallery and Museum on Royal Avenue, remaining there until the Belfast Municipal Museum and Art Gallery was opened in 1929 in the City’s Botanic Gardens. Today this building forms part of the Ulster Museum where Takabuti has remained on display ever since.

The Takabuti Project: Phase 1 (2007-2009)

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