Mark Washburn

Cold case: Many mysteries shroud N.C.’s only mummy

North Carolina’s only mummy still lives the life.

Smuggled from Egypt in an oriental rug, borne by steamship to two continents, rescued by firefighters from a flood, closeted for a decade in storage and her spirit doomed to walk eternally among us because of bookkeeping error on her cartouche, Margaret the Mummy sets a new standard for the term “active senior.”

Margaret is also a woman of mystery. Little is known of her afterlife journey from Egypt, the perplexing artistry of her casket or even her real name.

“I just wish she could whisper,” says Melinda Herzog, executive director of Iredell Museums on Court Street in Statesville, the mummy’s adopted home. “Margaret’s a puzzler.”

Technology tells us a little of her story. Margaret, who moves by hearse, has been X-rayed and CAT scanned at Iredell hospitals through the decades.

Her bones tell us she was a well-nourished woman of about 25 to 40 when she shed the mortal coil. Her pelvis is in such a condition as to make it impossible to determine whether she had children.

Her hands are crossed on her lap, meaning she was a commoner. Royals were mummified with hands crossed on their chests.

But her elaborate coffin ensemble – three of them, like nested dolls – indicate Margaret was wealthy, probably upper middle class. Someone went to a lot of expense to pack her off to the afterworld.

Margaret also has a toe in the Old World – ours, not hers. During restoration, a toe was found in the bottom of her coffin. It was sent to the British Museum for carbon dating. They haven’t gotten around to doing it yet. Mummy matters can’t be rushed.

She’s a rare one

Markings on her innermost coffin show, according to an analysis by the British Museum, that she lived about 3,000 years ago in the 22nd Dynasty, making her a bit of a star. Mummies from that period are relatively rare.

In the 1880 or 1890s, a Baptist missionary from Pennsylvania somehow made her acquaintance, probably through a commercial mummy dealer or a tomb raider. She had apparently been entombed in Al Faiyum, a lush desert oasis town near Cairo.

“She was wrapped in an oriental carpet and smuggled out through the port,” says Herzog, “or so the story goes.”

There are lots of “so the story goes” when Herzog tells tales of Margaret. She is a purely undocumented immigrant, though Herzog thinks she’s figured out where there may be a trove of records to dispel many of Margaret’s mysteries.

Margaret’s missionary was from the Crozer Theological Seminary in Upland, Pa., just outside Philadelphia (Martin Luther King Jr. was an alum).

She had been acquired as an artifact for the seminary’s missionary museum. She probably sailed to England, then caught a steamer for Philly.

When the seminary closed, its papers and missionary reports were absorbed by Emory University in Atlanta.

Buried somewhere in there may be reports from Margaret’s missionary about his travels in Egypt, his acquisition of a mummy and details of her provenance. When she finds the money, and hers is not a rich museum, Herzog wants to hire a grad student to dig in Emory’s archives for clues.

Life in Statesville

When Crozer closed its missionary museum in the 1950s, Margaret was acquired by Richard Casanova, a prominent paleontologist who wrote the definitive book on North Carolina fossils, which is still in print today.

He had a laboratory in Statesville. He was concerned, the story goes, that people in Iredell would never journey out much into the real world, so he figured he’d bring a bit of Egypt to them.

In 1957, Margaret arrived at Iredell Museums in an 18-wheeler, wrapped in the protective driver’s blanket. He thought she was a princess.

A contest was held for schoolchildren to name her. “Tuttina” was the winner but her alliterative nickname of “Margaret” was the one that stuck.

Generations of Iredell children have met Margaret during first-grade field trips. Grandparents sometimes bring in their grandchildren to meet her. For many, she’s kind of a family ritual.

One big mystery

Margaret’s innermost coffin, the one you see in the museum wrapped around her remains, is called a cartonnage. It’s made of linen and resin that forms a hard shell, like a cast or paper mache.

Routinely, the Egyptians painted the name of the deceased on the cartonnage. That’s called the cartouche, and it’s important. When the soul wanders, it needs to look for its name to get back to the body and then into the afterworld.

Think of it like this: You’ve parked your rental car at the mall and you can’t remember what it looks like. All you’ve got is its license number on the key fob, and you go looking.

Despite all the artistry, all the decoration and all the labor of creating her sarcophagus, the name was not painted on it. It dooms Margaret’s soul to an endless journey in this world.

She gets around

Being dead 3,000 years hasn’t slowed Margaret down much. She visited Charlotte as part of a mummy exhibition in the 1980s at Discovery Place.

She’s been to science museums in Durham and Birmingham, Ala., and showed her stuff at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.

Old age has its perils. Hang around long enough and bad things happen.

About 10 years ago, a flood on Gregory Creek inundated the old Statesville museum

Rachel Anders, who met Margaret as a first-grader in 1987 and is now the museum’s marketing coordinator, helped Statesville firefighters lift her from the menacing waters.

“I’m six feet tall and the water was up to my knees,” says Anders.

Afterward, Margaret got a beauty treatment – restoration and a medical exam to ensure she was free of mold – and went into storage until a new museum space could be readied. She went back on display in March and will receive guests until at least September 2017.

Next up for Margaret is a children’s book being written and illustrated locally. And, because she’s one for the ages, she keeps active on her Twitter, Facebook and Instagram accounts.

Love of mummies

Egypt’s glories were largely shut off to the outside world during the Ottoman Empire. It wasn’t until the time of Napoleon that Westerners began to learn of its ancient treasures.

Egypt is underlain by mummies in the millions. Royals and the rich landed in tombs. Poor commoners went into the dunes. Storms today routinely uncover them, and if the mummies are left to themselves, the next wind replaces their sandy blankets.

Mummies were so common that for a time in the 20th century they were used as cheap fuel in Egyptian steam locomotives. In the Victorian period, mummies were popular collectibles in the West. Unwrapping parties were common on the social circuit.

In 1922, explorer Howard Carter peered for the first time into the unravaged tomb of boy king Tutankhamen and was dumbstruck by the sight of wonderful things.

“As my eyes grew accustomed to the light,” Carter later wrote, “details of the room within emerged slowly from the mist – strange animals, statues, and gold – everywhere the glint of gold.”

Tut was the Elvis of mummies. Since his discovery, mummies have held a grip on popular culture.

“All the gold – it was magical,” says Herzog.

So is the concept of life everlasting, which Margaret seems to have achieved. She’s not gone to the afterlife she had expected, but she’s on a glide path to outlast us all.

Or so the story goes.

Want to meet Margaret?

Iredell Museums is at 134 Court St., Statesville. Admission: $6. Open 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Wednesday-Saturday; 1-5 p.m. Sundays.