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San Francisco, California

The Sutro Egyptian Collection

Tenacious mummies survived dental problems, eternal entombment, and more than their fair share of devastating fires. 

The Sutro Collection of Egyptian Antiquities amounts to approximately 700 objects, including the two intact mummies, three mummified heads, and a mummified hand purchased in 1884 by Adolph Sutro himself. The stars of the collection are the two mummies, who are estimated to date back to the 21-22 Dynasties approximately 3500 years ago.

Nes-Per-N-Nub, a mummy whose rare, triple nesting sarcophagi indicates former great import, as the doorkeeper in the temple of Amun, is thought to hail from Thebes. The second, unnamed mummy is a female who is often referred to as The Yellow Mummy due to her sarcophagus’ brilliant color, and is remarkable for having extra sets of bones within the folds of her wrappings.

Recent scientific studies have shown that members of Egyptian society’s class worthy of such immortal preservation were plagued by worn teeth, periodontal diseases, abscesses and cavities, as well as arteriosclerosis (the hardening of arteries). Though CT scans have not shed light on The Yellow Mummy’s cause of death, they have shown that Nes-Per-N-Nub died of natural causes and revealed that he was not immune to such maladies, as the poor guy suffered from a history of both cavities and arthritis.

Unfortunately, all records of Sutro’s purchase of his Egyptian treasures were destroyed in the 1906 San Francisco earthquake and subsequent fire. Renowned for a populist ethos that extended well beyond his term as Mayor, Sutro displayed his collection at the Sutro Public Baths from 1895 to until the baths’ scheduled demolition in 1966. The collection had, conveniently enough, already been moved from the building before the night that the Sutro Baths burned to the ground under dubious circumstances.

The collection was housed for a time at the University of California Extension Center, but the mummies, various body parts, and the rest of the artifacts found their current final resting place at the Classics Department of San Francisco State University in 1972. In order to better showcase and utilize this wonderful collection, a Museum Studies Department was founded in 1987 to teach museum theory and design as well as proper archival practices.

The University’s Museum Studies program displays an array of Sutro’s collection at their biannual public exhibition. The mummies are regularly featured in these exhibits, placed beneath glass plates with small holes where the curious can muster their bravery to take a whiff of ancient times.

Obscura Day location: April 9, 2011.

Know Before You Go

Exhibitions are held in the Humanities Building, which is located at Tapia Street and Holloway Avenue.

*Please note that despite its free admission and volunteer-run status, the exhibition slated for April 2010 has been canceled due to severe budget cuts, and the collection can only be viewed by appointment.