In April 1896, an article ran in the Western Recorder, the Kentucky Baptist Convention’s weekly newspaper, titled: “A Mummy of an Egyptian Princess.” The piece gave a detailed description of a sarcophagus that had been recently excavated from a tomb outside Thebes — one that had been given a “certificate of it genuineness and history” by the great Egyptologist Heinrich Karl Brugsch.
Several months later, it arrived on the doorstep of Louisville’s Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, where it was — for the better part of 120 years — a literal skeleton in the closet.
It’s pretty detailed — though not as elaborate as more iconic archaeological finds like King Tut. The wooden panel over the face features a gold mask with delicate features. There are extensive hieroglyphics covering the lower portion.
Adam Winters is an archivist at the James P. Boyce Centennial Library, where the sarcophagus is now on display.
“We’ve not been able to decipher all of [the hieroglyphics], but a number of them we have been able to talk about,” Winters says. “We know that it identifies the person inside as Sheryet-Mehyet, which means the ‘child of the goddess Mehmet.’”
It was determined that the mummy inside was once a priestess who lived around 700 B.C.
Winters says the Seminary’s relationship with Sheryet-Mehyet (which has, over the years, been affectionately referred to as “Sherri”) began back in 1896 — several months before the Western Recorder article.
That year, Pastor Thomas Treadwell Eaton of Walnut Street Baptist Church — which at the time was the largest Baptist church in Louisville — took a tour group to the “ancient lands.” It was an extensive trip that covered portions of Europe, Palestine and Asia, before the group finally ended up in the Egyptian city of Luxor.
“Once there, he had an opportunity to buy the mummy,” Winters says. “I don’t know how these things necessarily work. It sounds like an ‘Indiana Jones’-type of story.”
But Winters does have a guess.
On that trip was a well-to-do woman by the name of Sarah Julia Smith. She was the widow of J. Lawrence Smith, an esteemed chemist and deacon at Walnut Street Baptist.
“I’m guessing she had the financial backing to secure the purchase,” Winters says.
Eaton wrote in the Western Recorder that he envisioned using the mummy to illustrate “the religion and burial customs of the ancient Egyptians.”
Sheryet-Mehyet was the first Egyptian mummy in Louisville; it was displayed at the seminary’s old downtown location. Then-hotep, the Louisville Science Center’s mummy, arrived in 1905 and was subsequently damaged in the 1937 Flood.
“Fortunately, our mummy was high and dry when the flood came,” Winters says, as the seminary had moved away from the river to its current Crescent Hill location in 1926.
But according to campus lore, it wasn’t always kept in pristine museum conditions. The mummy has been stored in closets, professors’ offices, and allegedly (though Winters can’t confirm this) even in the cafeteria.
“It just kind of resided in different places,” Winters says. “I’ve seen pictures of it in its old space, just kind of standing straight-up, leaning against a wall you might say.”
Winters says regardless of being kept in some less than secure places, the sarcophagus is in pretty good condition. It has just a few minor dings from being moved.
In 1961, seminary faculty decided to remove the upper portion of the case and unwrap the mummy’s face. It was then displayed in Norton Hall, one of the campus buildings, alongside other historical objects.
There are photos in the school archives that show the top of the sarcophagus suspended from a wire above Sheryet-Mehyet’s bare skull. It was a popular exhibit for visitors for a while, but when the mummy was moved into its current library location in 2008, faculty made the decision to re-wrap the body and put the cover back on.
Winters says that while the sarcophagus is relatively tucked away and doesn’t garner much attention from current students, he passes the Sheryet-Mehyet every day.
“I mean, I don’t know Sheryet-Mehyet would have thought that she would end up in a Baptist seminary — Baptist didn’t even exist then — in Louisville, Kentucky, on display where people could look at her,” Winters says.
He continues, pointing to the sarcophagus: “I don’t mean to sound macabre or anything, but death is on my mind a lot. So for me, it’s a daily reminder about making the most of the time that I have.”