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Egyptian mummy removed from coffin for first time in 2,300 years

Conservation efforts begin on body of 14-year-old Minirdis, found in 19th century at Nile burial site and brought to the Chicago Field Museum in the 1920s

14-year-old Egyptian boy and his burial mask lie in his opened coffin after JP Brown and his team of curators at the Field Museum opened the coffin for the first time. Photograph: Charles Rex Arbogast/AP

A mummy left its coffin for the first time in 2,300 years this week after several tense moments as scientists lifted the wooden lid.

The body, carefully pulled from the ancient box by conservator JP Brown and three other scientists at the Chicago Field Museum, belonged to a 14-year-old Egyptian boy named Minirdis.

Brown and his colleagues will work on the mummy and coffin to repair damage and stabilize it for display and travel to an upcoming exhibition.

“It’s quite nervous-making”, Brown told the Guardian, recalling how his team used an elaborate metal cradle to lift the lid as one piece. “And it makes one more nervous when one is working with human remains”, he said, “and as they get younger it gets more affecting. You realize this was a person’s life that was cut short.”

JP Brown and his team photograph the back side of the mummified body of Minirdis, a 14-year-old Egyptian boy who was the son of a priest. Photograph: Charles Rex Arbogast/AP

An inscription on the coffin named Minirdis as the son of a priest of Min, a central Egyptian fertility god. Minirdis’ body was found in the late 19th century at a huge burial site along the Nile near the city of Akhmin, where many of the mummies on display in the US come from.

Had he lived, Minirdis likely would have been a priest, Brown said.

Mummification was mostly for “the 10 percenters” of ancient Egypt, Brown said, such as priests, their families, the royal family and the royals’ closest functionaries. Minirdis’ coffin arrived at the Field Museum in the 1920s.

Seeing x-rays of a small body in an oversized coffin, researchers at first thought the body belonged to a woman. Then CT scans revealed “a definite penis”, Brown said, which ended their confusion about the male name on the coffin.

Although scientists don’t know how Minirdis died, it appears the coffin was made for an adult and repurposed when the boy perished.

The Egyptian Goddess Nut, which translates to sky, is painted in the bottom of the coffin of Minirdis. Photograph: Charles Rex Arbogast/AP

When removing the lid, the team feared the whole coffin would fall apart; now, Brown and his colleagues face the challenge of conserving both the body and coffin.

They will search through all the debris in the coffin – some wood, some wrappings, some human – and begin the delicate work of putting it all together. “If you took a jigsaw puzzle and twisted it and tore it and then left it for 2,300 years, that’s basically what we’re doing here”, Brown said.

The conservators will try to use as much of the original material as possible, and Brown said any modern material they use will be not only durable but “sympathetic” to the methods of ancient Egyptians. They will rewrap the remains in the style of ancient Egyptians and restore broken bits of the corpse.

The mummy’s shroud and gilded mask were damaged during burial and over the years, and they constitute one of the biggest challenges of conservation. “Each object is effectively unique”, Brown said, with “all kinds of different traditions of craftsmanship that evolve over thousands of years”.

With so few mummies around the world, experts with experience conserving the fragile remains are even rarer, and conservators’ work blends research, preservation and archaeology.

The Field Museum brought Mimi Leveque from the Peabody Essex Museum to help Brown, who said this was his second coffin but his first mummy.

The exhibition, “Mummies: Images of the Afterlife”, will display more than 20 mummies and dozens of artifacts, and is expected to travel to the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles and Denver Museum of Nature and Science in the next few years.