Man perishes, his corpse turns to dust, all his relatives pass away. But writings make him remembered in the mouth of the reader

from an ancient Egyptian hieroglyphic text [1]

Remembered in the mouth of the reader – a mistaken identity

The woman lying in the wooden coffin at the rear of the Ancient Worlds gallery has come a long way to rest in this quiet, dim corner of Auckland Museum. After her life, death, mummification and burial in ancient Egypt, her remains arrived here in 1958 via Canterbury Museum. The Director of Canterbury Museum, Julius von Haast had purchased her along with several other Egyptian artefacts in 1888, and Auckland Museum acquired her by way of an artefact exchange (a process which is no longer practiced by museums). She was placed on display very soon after she arrived and has attracted a steady stream of interested visitors ever since.

As she had been separated from the context of her burial, all the information we have about her comes from the scant details of her purchase from an Italian Egyptologist and what her body, her wrappings, and her coffin can tell us. Several types of analyses have been performed over the years as more informative, non-destructive scientific techniques have become available.

In the early 1970s she was given a complete body X-ray by the Museum Ethnologist. The images, as described in the Herald and Dominion newspapers of early January 1971, showed a woman, aged between 18 and 35 years old when she died, and they showed that her abdominal cavity had been packed with what was thought to be spices and ointments. 

The coffin and mummified remains of the woman in the Ancient Worlds gallery

The mummified remains of Auckland Museum’s second individual, a child, was also X-rayed at this time. He had been on display since 1929 and was now secured in storage because of his fragile state. During this process, two sets of inscribed “mummy-tapes” were discovered around his neck.

When the tapes were deciphered by Mr Eric Young2, he discovered that the tapes were similarly worded but that one was for a boy and one was for a girl. The more complete girl’s tape provided the name Ta-Sedgemet. The details of the translations and the mystery of the child’s identification were also reported in the newspaper articles of January 1971.

Left: tape with male reference 
Right: tape with female reference


Sometime later, estimated between 1982 and 1994, a report was written for the then Archaeology Curator by a local Egyptologist. It is suspected that it was at this point the name Ta-Sedgemet was mistakenly associated with the remains of the anonymous woman in the Ancient Worlds Gallery. It was under this (mistaken) name that she was known by generations of interested visitors to her gallery tomb at Auckland Museum.

In the early 2000s her remains and her coffin were taken off display for extensive conservation work. In addition to cleaning and stabilising the paintwork, her bandages were also stabilised and secured.

Some fragments of her linen wrappings and small pieces of sycamore wood from her coffin were radiocarbon dated by the Radiocarbon Laboratory at the University of Waikato. The results indicated a date between 850-575 BCE (22-25 Dynasty) for her burial. This ties in with the style of the coffin and the methods of mummification.


Ancient Worlds gallery, level one 

At this time, she was given a full CT scan at the nearby Mercy Ascot Hospital. She was their oldest patient by far. This scan yielded a wealth of information discussed in detail in John Dennison’s article published in the Records of the Auckland Museum.3

It was established that she was wrapped in a single linen cloth knotted under her neck, and tightly bound with linen bandages in an intricate and neat pattern. Her heart and lungs were still visible in place in her chest cavity, and it could be seen that her abdominal cavity had been packed but no sign of an incision for evisceration was apparent.

By examining features of her pelvis visible in the CT scan, her age at death was refined to between 27 and 35 years old. Although her computer measured height was 145cm, using the length of her left femur, her height while she was alive was calculated to have been 156cm tall, allowing for dehydration and shrinkage. Assuming a normal weight range, her weight was predicted to have been between 43.2kg and 52.3kg.

Her long bones revealed no signs of childhood illnesses; however, the scan did show that she had very worn teeth, poor oral health (probable abscesses) and an inflamed nasal membrane. She also had a (non-Hodgkin) lymphoma which would have caused low immunity and poor general health. There is no doubt she “was not a well woman at the time of her death.”4


Images courtesy of Mercy Radiology

While her body had been removed for scanning, images of the coffin, inside and out, were taken and later posted in an article online. These images were seen by a French Egyptologist researching mummified remains from the Akhmin region. The Egyptologist, Marion Claude5 contacted Dr Louise Furey, the Archaeology Curator at Auckland Museum in 2014 to offer information about the stylistic details of the coffin, and a translation for some of the interior hieroglyphs. The exterior of the coffin was too worn and faded to be able to read in those images.

Marion Claude suggested that the coffin and hieroglyphic style was from Upper Egypt in the region of Akhmin, 50km downstream from Abydos on the banks of the Nile.6 However, the hieroglyphs from the interior of the coffin indicated that her name was not Ta-Sedgemet.

The woman’s remains were placed back on display in a sealed, low-oxygen, humidity-controlled glass case and the public continued to visit her and learn about her lifestyle in ancient Egypt; and Dr Furey began some intensive sleuthing to try to piece together all the information associated with the remains and the coffin. Unfortunately, some vital files had been lost over the years with changes of staff and the relocation of offices. Her investigation took her to original researchers where possible, or anyone who may have had some connection to the original researchers and their papers. She managed to contact people all over New Zealand and as far afield as UK or USA, as she pulled together the story of the mistaken identity, which is presented here.

Coffin interior

Among the documents she was able to source were the newspaper articles mentioned above which quoted the translations of the “mummy-tapes” found with the child’s coffin. These tapes provided the “ah-ha” moment critical to solving any “who dunnit?” or “who is it?” mystery.

It was immediately apparent to her that the name Ta-Sedgemet referred to the child’s remains and not the woman’s, and she confirmed this by having the hieroglyphs on the tapes and the interior of the coffin translated by further Egyptology experts.7 The scholars agreed on the translation of the name painted on the interior of the coffin, and Dr Furey was able to restore the correct name after several decades of mistaken identity.

In the religious system of Ancient Egypt, a person’s name was inseparably connected to their personality or soul; it was an aspect of the “ka” (the essence of a person which was transmitted from one generation to the next) and the memory of a person’s name through later generations of the living was crucial to ensure eternal life. On a practical level a person’s name was the only means of identification both among the living and in the realms of the dead. It is so important that there are spells among the Coffin Texts and in The Book of the Dead aimed at preventing a person from forgetting their name after death.8

Coffin exterior


So, it is very good to be able to reintroduce the woman lying in the gallery tomb to her Auckland visitors by her given name;

Souser-iret-binet, whose mother was Aset-en-kheb.

May she be remembered in the mouth of the reader.


Written by Deirdre Harrison, Collection Manager Archaeology.

This blog is based on research done by Dr Louise Furey, previous Curator of Archaeology, Auckland Museum.


[1] Wilkinson, T. 2017 Writings from Ancient Egypt. Penguin Classics

[2] Ex-Associate Curator of the Department of Egyptian Art at the MMA, New York

[3] Dennison, J. 2010 Ta-Sedgemet, the mummy in the Auckland War Memorial Museum. Records of the Auckland Museum 47:111-127

[4] Quote from J. Dennison, above

[5] Marion Claude emails to Dr Louise Furey, May 2014


[6] This location was confirmed in the communications between Haast (of Canterbury Museum) and Giglioli (Museum Director in Florence who sourced the coffin and the remains). 22 January 1887 “a good plain Mummy from Akhmini”.

[7] Photographs of the interior of the base of the coffin taken at the time of conservation 2001, and more recent high-resolution images of the tapes were sent to Jen Hellum, lecturer at Auckland University and Christine Lillyquist of the MMA in New York.

[8] Ancient Egyptian Language and Names