Croc Mummies, Ancient Papyri, and Virtual Reality Tombs: Oh My!

Berkeley experts return to the tomb.
By Charlie Pike

It’s no secret that Berkeley’s Bancroft Library houses a trove of ancient Egyptian papyri. But how did it end up there? The answer lies in reptile carcasses.

It seems the ancient Egyptian priests had a problem: their mummified crocodiles, intended as offerings to the croc god Sobek, would not keep their shape. So they stuffed them with scraps of used papyri, the ancient precursor to our paper.

Centuries later, in 1899, a team of archaeologists, funded by Berkeley benefactor Phoebe A. Hearst, stumbled across these papyri-stuffed, mummified crocs while on a dig in Umm el-Baragat, Egypt, site of the ancient city of Tebtunis. When the researchers discovered the scraps of letters, bills, and other banal records, they realized they had hit on something big: a paper trail into everyday life in Tebtunis, including such humdrum artifacts as tax documents, contracts, petitions, and complaints. In one example, an ancient villager wrote to a village official petitioning for help after “an attack was made upon my dwelling by Arsinoe.”

As Andrew Hogan, postdoctoral fellow at the Bancroft’s Center for the Tebtunis Papyri, told Berkeley News, working with these papyri texts allows researchers to “[peel] away below the 1 percent. So, you’re getting to the vast majority of the lived experience for most people in the ancient world.”

While Hogan focuses on the quotidian history of ancient Egypt, Professor Rita Lucarelli, faculty curator of Egyptology at the Hearst Museum of Anthropology, is working on a virtual reality museum experience. Aptly named “Return to the Tomb,” the headset-enabled tour transports viewers into the realm of the ancient dead. Lucarelli said the VR exhibit allows viewers to “have the experience of entering a tomb, walking around a coffin, and interacting with these beautiful funerary texts and images.”

The project stems from a push to digitize museum artifacts from around the world in hopes that one day they may be returned to the tombs, villages, and towns from which they were taken.

Project coordinator Chris Hoffman told Berkeley News, “We’re doing something quite groundbreaking, in terms of building an immersive virtual reality experience that is authentic, in using scholarly content and making it available to many more people while preserving artifacts.”

From the Summer 2021 issue of California.
Image source: Phoebe A. Hearst Museum of Anthropology, UC Berkeley, 15-18884
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