The hundreds of people who visited the Museum of Natural History in Mdina yesterday and on Saturday were astonished to learn of an Egyptian mummy encased in a sarcophagus housed there.

Some time ago, Heritage Malta members John J. Borg, museum curator, and Claire Baluci, from the diagnostic science lab at the Bighi Restoration Centre, which falls under Heritage Malta, came up with the idea of putting together a project proposal to look into the history of the mummy. The initiative was hatched on April 16 and a lot of work has already been undertaken.

Forensic expert Anthony Abela Medici and radiologist Pierre Vassallo are assisting in the project.

Mr Borg said Dr Vassallo has carried out a CT scan of the mummy's head and the results indicate that the mummy was a woman aged between 25-35 when she died. Samples from the human remains and the linen from the bandages that cover the mummy have been lifted in order to carry out DNA and carbon dating on them in a foreign lab. The findings will then be compared with those in the data banks at the Cairo Museum and the British Museum.

"The findings of the DNA and carbon dating tests will help us trace the provenance of the mummy to see whether she was related to the royal family in Egypt," Mr Borg explained.

It was members of the royal family of pharaohs who were mummified, apart from others who were commoners but who held important positions in society.

In reality, the Egyptians mummified more animals than they did humans. In this manner, they preserved cats, hawks and crocodiles and other animals thought to have a direct connection with the gods they believed in, Mr Borg added.

The method used was to open up the body of the dead person, remove the stomach, the liver and the lungs but leave the heart inside. The brain was pulled out through the nostrils. The body was then dried, sometimes by keeping it in a natron bath. Then it was embalmed.

Mr Borg was very impressed by the number of people who visited the museum yesterday. "I have never seen so many people at one time since I came here 10 years ago," he admitted. Because of the high demand by the public, the Egyptian artefacts will be exhibited until Thursday, a public holiday, between 9 a.m. and 4.30 p.m.

The first time the mummy is mentioned in the museum archives is in a 1912 report simply stating that the mummy formed part of the Grenfell collection. Investigations are being carried out also to see whether the mummy was in fact, originally, part of the Grenfell collection.

The collection of Egyptian antique artefacts belonged to Sir Francis Wallace Grenfell, who was Governor of Malta between 1889 and 1903 and who had bequeathed the collection to the Maltese.

The collection includes several stuffed animals including a lion, a gibbon, a sacred ibis and a crocodile. The metal plaque accompanying this amphibian reads: "Sacred crocodile. From Upper Egypt. Dating 2,000 years BC".

The programme of visits during the weekend formed part of the Sundays with Heritage Malta series taking in also the Domus Romana, or Roman House, and the St Paul's and Jewish catacombs also in Rabat.

On Saturday, the visiting hours were by an hour because of the demand.

Pierre Cassar, Heritage Malta's communications coordinator, said they were extremely pleased with the turnout. "The response shows that the public wants such visits where all members of the family can go out together and learn more of this island's fascinating history," he said.

The museum is housed in the 18th century Magisterial Palace of Justice in the old capital. The original building served as the seat of the Università, or local government, before the arrival on the island of the Order of the Knights of St John in 1530.

Portuguese Grand Master Antonio Manuel de Vilhena (1722-36) re-structured the building at his own personal expense and transformed it into the present palace. In the early 20th century, the palace was converted into a hospital through the generous funding of the Duke of Connaught and was officially inaugurated on April 22, 1909, by King Edward VII. Throughout the 40 or so years of its existence, it was popularly known as the Connaught Hospital. The National Museum of Natural History was set up in the palace in 1973.

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