Golden Mummies of Egypt

Through July 11, $20 | North Carolina Museum of Art, Raleigh

Artemidorus is not the first mummy I’ve met, but he is the first mummy whose name I remember.

The Egyptian boy probably died around 100-120 C.E. between the ages of 19 and 21—the same age as my little sister, a jolting detail which made me linger with him longer. He’ll always be that age to onlookers, sitting in his wrappings with a Greek-style portrait greeting visitors outside his glass case.

Artemidorus is also the first mummy on display at Golden Mummies of Egypt, a new exhibition at the North Carolina Museum of Art. It’s not the first traveling ancient Egypt exhibition to come to the museum—the last, Temples and Tombs: Treasures of Egyptian Art from The British Museum, was in 2007—but it is the first time human remains have been displayed at NCMA.

NCMA has provided interactive screens, interspersed throughout the exhibition, and three informational videos on temples and the excavation process. Eight total mummies are featured, each with a screen for visitors to learn more about the mummies’ outer gildings and inner wrappings (don’t worry, it isn’t gory). The mummies are spaced between remnants of ancient Egypt, ranging from jewelry to tiny carved statues of gods and goddesses.

The mummies may look a bit different than you’d expect. As with pharaonic Egyptian exhibitions, the mummies and their belongings are decorated with intricate carvings of the afterlife and gilded to show their status in society.

The Golden Mummies of Egypt focuses on the Greco-Roman period of Egypt circa 300 B.C.E. to 200 C.E., some of the last centuries that practiced mummification. Caroline Rocheleau, an Egyptologist and the museum’s curator of ancient art, says this part of history is often ignored.

“That was one of the reasons I liked the exhibition, because we’re dealing with a very specific period in Egyptian history, at the very end,” Rocheleau told the INDY. “Egypt has existed for 3,000 years at that point, at the very least. And then the country gets ‘saved’ by Alexander [the Great] from the Persians.”

Evidence of these blended cultures is also visible: the artwork on the mummies and in the paintings, for example, reflect Greco-Roman hairstyles and accessories.

I visited on a Wednesday afternoon in March. The spread of COVID, at this point, still meant stricter protocols: timed entry, hand sanitizer stations, and far fewer folks than my last visit to the museum, in February of 2020, a few weeks before the world shut down. The open frame of the East building, where the exhibition is housed, made it seem even emptier.

It would be hard not to appreciate having a near-silent NCMA to take in this exhibition—it is, of course, a walk among the dead. Instead of rushing through the exhibition or worrying about holding up anyone else, I got to sit with Artemidorus, a woman named Isaious, and the six other mummies laying in temporary rest in Raleigh.

Curated by Nomad Productions using artifacts from the Manchester Museum in England, the exhibition was originally supposed to come to North Carolina during 2020. Then the pandemic hit. In a way, though, visiting this year in the brutal wake of 2020 made it more impactful.

We’re living through a time of acute mourning—since last March, more than 12,000 North Carolinians have died. Families have delayed funerals. Loved ones said goodbye on iPads in a hospital room. We’ve seen disproportionate numbers of deaths in communities of color.

Seeing these mummies, carefully wrapped in bandages and adorned with beautiful gold masks and paintings of the people they were—or they aspired to be—felt like seeing them at a wake. No rushing, no bumping against others and overhearing conversations. Just these two-thousand-year-old bodies whose souls were supposed to be with Osiris in the afterlife. Scrolling through the digital renderings of the different layers, captured by CT scans instead of invasive unwrappings, felt respectful.

Although the Golden Mummies of Egypt is poignant, there are still ways for children to learn from the experience. NCMA provides hieroglyph matching games, and children can draw their own versions of a burial mask.

The exhibition also does its best to contextualize the moment in history—as well as the moment these remains and artifacts were discovered by William Matthew Flinders Petrie in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. One video shows information about the British excavation of the graves; other displays explain the way Greece and Rome were intertwining with Egypt and its belief systems, and hint to the reality that Alexander the Great’s “conquest” was, the many now understand it, colonization.

“What I love about this exhibition is that it’s more than just mummies—it’s about hopes for the afterlife at a time in Egypt when Egyptian, Greek, and Roman cultures blended together,” Rocheleau said in an exhibition press release.

The mummies show signs of these consequences: the faces painted on bandages are white-appearing, and some interactive screens denote where pieces of the body were broken during the excavation process. An attentive visitor, attune to the consequences of colonization (and Flinders Petrie’s background in eugenics), may find that understanding the complexity of this era can work in tandem with the beauty of Egyptian burial practices. That messaging, though, might not be blatant enough for every museum visitor to pick up on.

Golden Mummies of Egypt is fascinating and uses modern technology to add a new dimension to seeing mummies in a museum. Even though the museum has now opened up, maybe you can find a quiet moment to sit with these mummies, understanding that they are more than just ornate artwork. Maybe, if you’re able, you can take a few hours out of a weekday, when the East building is most quiet, and pay your respects to the dead. 

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