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'A person, as well as a priceless antiquity': the only public high school with a 2,000-year-old mummy is in Illinois

Naperville CUSD 203

2,100 years ago, in the time of Cleopatra when the Greeks ruled ancient Egypt, a little girl died. She was around 7 years old and probably chronically sick. Her family preserved her body -- mummification -- by wrapping her in linen and papyrus adorned with images of the gods to secure her a good place in the afterlife.

20 centuries later and over 6,000 miles away, her body -- her parent’s final wish -- resurfaced in a dusty attic storage room at Naperville Central High School. By all accounts, they’re the only public high school in possession of a real, ancient Egyptian mummy.

The mummy rested there for decades after the school received her as a gift from a Naperville doctor in the 1940s. The story goes that he bought the mummy on a trip to Egypt years earlier. By the time he donated his collection, the sale of mummies in Egypt was illegal.

Tom Henneberry started teaching history at Naperville Central a few years after the discovery.

“When I got there, the mummy was in this glass, just a simple library display case,” he said. “It was in terrible shape. They had a hole in its side, the mask was broken, the face-covering was broken.”

Someone had even ripped off bandages. Her ribs, her shoulder and the side of her face were showing.

In the early years, Henneberry and other teachers would carry the display case into his classroom for ancient history lessons and bring in 6th-graders to learn about mummies.

Henneberry says he saw the educational value immediately. How often do students get the opportunity to see an over-2,000-year-old mummy up close at school? They reorganized the history curriculum to start with ancient Egypt.

“This is a person who lived 20 centuries ago. I mean, even the most jaded kids would say that's kind of cool,” said Henneberry.

But he says there was a balance between novelty and respect for the dead. He’d remind students that the body isn’t a mascot, they can’t take Halloween photos with it. But when she was first found, the teacher who discovered her nicknamed the mummy “Butch” -- maybe because they’d assumed she was a boy. Henneberry says they later realized the nickname was disrespectful and stopped saying it.

At that point, they knew next to nothing about who this person was. The mummy stayed in a simple glass box until the early 90s.

“Finally, we got enough sense and said, ‘you know we can't do this. You got to have some professionals check this out,’ so we're not just destroying a person as well as a priceless antiquity,” said Henneberry.

They got the mummy restored by experts at the University of Chicago and the Field Museum. They had DNA tests done – that’s when they found out she was a little girl. Carbon-dating her bandages confirmed that she lived around 100 BCE.

Henneberry says that at the time they thought about just donating her to the museum.

“We were told ‘Well, that's nice, but since it's still a bit of a mystery how it actually got here, besides the doctor bringing it,’ they’re like, ‘we can't really take it,’” he said.

The school also secured a museum-quality case to properly display the mummy, along with beads to absorb humidity and keep the wrappings from deteriorating.

In the 21st Century, archaeologists and Egyptologists have grappled with the ethics of displaying mummies. Is it inappropriate to show off ancient corpses, especially those collected by foreign tourists and taken from Egypt? Some museums have changed exhibits to try to treat them as people rather than an old painting or clay pot.

Henneberry says repairing the mummy’s tattered bandages and running tests to learn about who she was and how she may have died made them feel like they treated her with the utmost dignity -- not just as a curiosity.

The way they taught students using the ancient girl has evolved over the years as well.

“I felt personally, and then as a teacher, it really became a tremendous tool to not only talk about Egypt but talk about how we have to be very respectful with past as well as present cultures,” he said.

Henneberry retired in 2019 but says she is in safe hands, being used for classes like ancient history & religion, as well as with philosophy and science, like archeology.

The mummy -- with her decorated papyrus mask covering her face and hair curled into ringlets -- is still on display in the atrium of the history department.

Peter joins WNIJ as a graduate of North Central College. He is a native of Sandwich, Illinois.