Historical Background of new scientific studies using mummies

Apr 2, 2011

Historical Background of new scientific studies using mummies
new scientific studies using mummies
Egyptian mummies have long exerted their power to fascinate the general public, but today they wield even greater powers. They not only provide information about funerary beliefs and customs but also constitute a valuable resource for studying disease, diet, and living conditions in an ancient society.
The terms mummy and mummification are derived from the Arabic word mumiyah, meaning “pitch” or “bitumen,” which in turn comes from the Persian mum or “wax.” Mumiyah was originally used as the name for the bituminous liquid that exuded from the Mummy Mountain in Persia and became a desirable and widely used medicinal ingredient. As its curative properties became well known, and demand began to exceed supply, other sources were sought.

From medieval times, fragments of the artificially preserved bodies of the ancient Egyptians, often obtained and exported from Egypt by unscrupulous methods, were included in medicines because it was wrongly assumed that with their blackened appearance, these preserved human remains had been soaked in bitumen and would therefore provide a good alternative. The Latinized term mumia was thus also applied to these bodies, and they became known in English as mummies. Even after eighteenth-century laws were passed in Egypt to control this trade, only the worst excesses were curtailed, and dealers continued to supply Europe with mumia until the nineteenth century.


By the eighteenth century, an interest also developed in mummies as scientific and anatomical curiosities. Wealthy travelers began to bring mummies back with them to Europe and the United States as souvenirs, and some of these were unwrapped in front of invited audiences. Many of these “unrollings” were frivolous events, performed to entertain the owner’s guests, and since no scientific records were kept, much valuable information was lost.
Other unwrappings, however, were undertaken by serious researchers who, for the first time, sought information about funerary customs and mummification, and their detailed publications still provide valuable evidence.
One of the most famous early investigators was Thomas Joseph Pettigrew (1791–1865), who practiced as a surgeon in London. His medical background provided him with specialized knowledge for these projects, and he gave demonstrations on many mummies, some of which he owned while others belonged to friends and colleagues. The archaeologist Belzoni, who had first aroused Pettigrew’s interest in Egyptology, invited Pettigrew to be present at three unrollings. With his flair for publicity, Belzoni arranged for one mummy to be unwrapped in front of a medical audience to mark the opening of his popular exhibition on Egyptian antiquities in Piccadilly, London.

Unlike some of his contemporaries, Pettigrew was a meticulous worker; he followed precise procedures when he performed his autopsies on mummies in the presence of titled medical, literary, and scientific audiences in London. He also adopted a multidisciplinary approach, bringing in experts in a number of fields who could advise, for example, on the textiles and insects found in association with the mummies. In his renowned book, entitled History of Egyptian Mummies and an
Account of the Worship and Embalming of the Sacred Animals (1842), Pettigrew left a valuable record of his work.

Other serious researchers in this field included Italian-born Briton Augustus Bozzi
Granville (1783–1872), and American John Warren (1778–1856), the first professor of anatomy and surgery at Harvard University, who unrolled a Ptolemaic mummy in 1821
In Leeds, England, the members of the Leeds Philosophical and Literary Society assembled a multidisciplinary research team that in 1825 unwrapped and autopsied a mummy purchased by a member of the society specifically for this purpose. In 1828, a detailed study was published that fully demonstrated the serious, scientific approach of the team.


In the late nineteenth century, archaeologists recovered two caches of royal mummies at Thebes, and this discovery enabled scientists to undertake extensive studies relating to mummification techniques and palaeopathology.
The royal tombs of the New Kingdom had suffered desecration in antiquity, probably quite soon after the burials had taken place; subsequently in Dynasty 21, priests had removed the mummies of several kings and queens from their original resting places and reburied them elsewhere. They presumably hoped that this action would give these royal individuals a renewed hope of eternity. The bodies had been rewrapped at the great religious center located at the temples of Medinet Habu, on the west bank at Thebes, and during this process, some mummies had probably been separated from their inscribed coffins and funerary equipment.
This careless processing of the mummies appears to have led the priests to incorrectly identify some of them: They had subsequently written the individual names on dockets that they attached to their bandages, but modern scientific studies have indicated that these identifications were sometimes incorrect. In 1871, the local family of er-Rasul, dealers in antiquities who lived at the nearby village of Qurna, discovered the first cache of these mummies that had been reburied in the unfinished tomb of Queen Inha‘pi, which was located in the southern part of Deir el-Bahri.
first scientific studies using mummies
When the antiquities associated with this cache began to appear on the market, the antiquities service became suspicious; following official enquiries in the area and the confession of a member of the er-Rasul family, the where- abouts of the find was revealed. The mummies and the associated funerary goods were then transported by river to Cairo, where they were deposited in the Egyptian Museum. There, in 1886, over a period of a couple of months,the mummies were unwrapped. Maspero, director of the National Antiquities Service of Egypt, supervised the procedure, which included the unwrapping of the most famous king, Ramesses II, in the presence of the khedive (ruler) of Egypt.

A second cache of royal mummies was discovered in 1898, buried in the tomb of Amen-hotep II in the Valley of the Kings at Thebes, and this group was also moved to the museum in Cairo. In 1891, a member of the er-Rasul family revealed the location of a third major group of mummies that his family had already been exploiting for several years.
This tomb was situated to the north of Deir el-Bahri and contained the coffins and mummies of about 105 members of priestly families who had lived in Thebes during Dynasty 21.


The two caches of royal mummies provided scientists an unprecedented opportunity to study mummification techniques and evidence of disease, albeit in a very specific social and historical group. The Australian doctor Grafton Elliot Smith (1871–1937), professor of Anatomy in the Cairo School of Medicine, undertook a systematic examination of the royal mummies, and with evidence gained from this and other investigations, he produced the first comprehensive and scientific study of the mummification procedure. His findings were published in The Royal Mummies (1912), a volume in the Cairo museum’s catalog series, and in a general account of mummification written with coauthor Warren R. Dawson, Egyptian Mummies (1924).
More recent studies on the collection of royal mummies in the Egyptian Museum have included radiological surveys that have shed new light on mummification techniques, their age at death, dental conditions, and some genealogical observations about the royal family. Attempts to visualize the craniofacial skele-tons of the mummies, and thereby identify individual members and family relationships within the New Kingdom royal family, have presented difficulties, however. This study seems to indicate that some identifications of royal individuals, made by the priests of Dynasty 21 and recorded on the individual dockets, are probably inaccurate—the result of carelessness on the part of some of the ancient workers.

One mummy that was not found in the caches but within his original intact tomb belonged to the king Tutankhamun. Because of the circumstances of its discovery, it is the only royal mummy of Dynasty 18 whose identification cannot be challenged. The body has been examined on several occasions, first in 1923 by Dr. D. E. Derry, who was professor of anatomy at the Cairo School of Medicine, and then in the 1960s by a team from Liverpool, England, that made anatomical investigations based on X rays taken in the tomb, using portable equipment, and also attempted to identify the young king’s blood group.
The same Liverpool team carried out a similar examination on another mummy, found in Tomb 55 in the Valley of the Kings. When this mummy was first discovered in 1907, it was investigated and identified as belonging to a woman; in the subsequent publication (1910), ownership of this tomb and the body were attributed to Queen Tiye, wife of Amenhotep III. When the body was later reexamined by G. Elliot Smith, however, he asserted that it had belonged to a young man, about twenty-five years old. Also, he claimed that the head was distorted, suggesting that the man had suffered from hydrocephalus; thus it was tentatively reattributed to Amenhotep IV (Akhenaten), who in contemporary art was portrayed with a distorted skull. To further confuse matters, a subsequent examination of the mummy discovered no evidence of hydrocephalus; in addition, according to inscriptional evidence, Akhenaten probably ruled for seventeen years and thus would have been a much older man at the time of his death. In more recent years, the body has been identified with a person named
Smenkhkare in contemporary inscriptions

The research of the Liverpool team supported the findings that this body belonged to a young man in his early twenties who, from the comparative X ray and blood group studies, appears to have been a close relative—perhaps the brother or half brother—of
Tutankhamun. Hereto, however, the inscriptional and archaeological evidence is inconclusive, and other discoveries and biological and genetic investigations are required to carry the debate forward.
Another multidisciplinary project on a royal mummy was undertaken in the 1970s in order to gather evidence about disease and diet.
When the mummy of Ramesses II was taken to Paris in 1976 for conservation treatment, the opportunity arose to use several nondestructive techniques, such as radiology, to carry out further investigations. These studies focused on the anatomy and dentition floral and faunal remains associated with the body, and samples of hair; however, since permission was not granted to remove samples of tissue or bone, it was not possible to expand them to include histology, serology, or DNA identification.
Since 1988, American Egyptologist Kent Weeks has been excavating and cleaning Tomb KV5 in the Valley of the Kings, which was probably the burial place of some of the sons of Ramesses II. Some human mummified fragments that he and his team have found there provide potential material for biomedical studies and DNA research. Generally, the discovery of large numbers of human and animal mummies in twentieth-century excavations has presented a greatly expanded resource for biomedical studies, as it has coincided with the development of new scientific techniques that can be utilized for the detailed examination of the mummies.


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