The Cohen Mummy

Margaret Swaney
Meg Swaney is a Ph.D. student in the Department of Near Eastern Studies at Johns Hopkins University studying Egyptian Art and Archaeology. She also holds a master's degree in Museum Studies from New York University ('13), where her research focused on the ethics of displaying Egyptian mummies, as well as a bachelor's degree in Anthropology from the University of Chicago ('11).
Sanchita Balachandran
Sanchita Balachandran is the Associate Director of the Johns Hopkins Archaeological Museum and Senior Lecturer in the Department of Near Eastern Studies. She teaches courses related to the identification and analysis of ancient manufacturing techniques of objects, as well as the history, ethics and practice of museum conservation.

Cohen_facial_depiction_grayscale_with_ALL_logosThe Archaeological Museum stewards an ancient Egyptian woman whose skeletal remains are only partially preserved. Our recent study of this individual revealed surprising new insights that contradict earlier assumptions.

She has been named the “Cohen mummy” because she was collected by Baltimore’s Colonel Mendes Israel Cohen in the mid-1830s. Cohen’s Catalog of Egyptian Antiquities identifies “no. 568” as a “Mummy of a youth” collected in ancient Thebes (now Luxor) and “no. 569” as a coffin, which may or may not have belonged to the mummy. Both were donated to Johns Hopkins in 1884 with the majority of Cohen’s collection and were stored at Evergreen House. In 1979, the Johns Hopkins Hospital’s Pathology Department autopsied the mummy with the assistance of Egyptologist William Peck of the Detroit Institute of Arts. An article in the Baltimore Sun reported that the remains were thought to be of a young, middle class man with worn teeth whose legs had been broken and/or disarticulated to fit in his coffin. This coffin is now exhibited in the museum.

While previously identified as a young male, our study of this individual’s remains revealed the individual is, in fact, female. The development of her bones and the amount of wear on her teeth also indicate she was an adult when she died, possibly in her forties or older, and her pelvis suggests she may have borne children. Based on measurements of her long bones, she was approximately 4 feet 7 inches tall and weighed about 89 pounds. Examinations of CT scans of her skull indicate both typical sub-Saharan and Caucasoid features, suggesting a mixed ancestry, which is common for ancient Egyptians. She lost several teeth over the course of her life, and she had abscesses that must have caused her severe pain. Small patches of straight reddish hair are still preserved on her skull, the color of which is likely due to either natural decomposition processes, or may be evidence of her hair being dyed.

This tiny glass bead found with the mummy is less than 3mm wide.

This tiny glass bead found with the mummy is less than 3mm wide. It is now exhibited in the museum with fragments of her original linen wrappings.

It is difficult to identify when she lived as she has no burial goods—other than a single tiny glass bead—to suggest a date. Fragments of her original linen wrappings are also preserved, but provide little additional evidence of her burial. However, if she was associated with the painted wooden coffin on view, she may have lived sometime after 664 BCE. Recent scientific imaging of the coffin also offers us a possible name for this ancient individual—Amenirdis—a woman’s name meaning “It is (the god) Amun who has given her,” which also dates to a similar time period as the coffin (ca. 664-332 BCE).

  • A Painted Coffin (ca. 664-525 BCE)
  • The Hidden Name
  • Catalogue of Egyptian Antiquities