AUTOPSIES OF ANCIENT EGYPT MUMMIES

May 5, 2011


AUTOPSIES OF ANCIENT EGYPT MUMMIES

The main methods of examination of mummies available to pioneers such as Murray and Smith were autopsy and morbid anatomy, which involve unwrapping and dissecting the body, and then observing its overall state and condition. During the 1970s, several autopsies were carried out by multidisciplinary teams to gain tissue and bone samples for further analyses.
In 1975, at the University of Manchester, the mummy of a young girl (aged about fourteen) was unwrapped and autopsied as part of the ongoing research of the Manchester Egyptian Mummy Research Project. This project had been established in 1973 to develop a methodology for examining mummified remains in order to obtain evidence about disease, diet, living conditions, and funerary customs.


This was the first scientific autopsy undertaken on a mummy in England since Murray’s pioneering work in 1908. The procedure carried out in Manchester established guidelines for obtaining the maximum amount of information about a mummy.
During this process, a variety of artifacts were found in association with the body, including prosthetic legs and phallus, nipple amulets, sandals, and toenail and fingernail covers. There was also evidence that the girl had suffered from Guinea worm infestation, a disease that may have led to the amputation of both her legs shortly before death.
Important autopsies in the 1970s were also carried out on a series of mummies in the collections of the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology in Philadelphia (known as PUM I, II, III, and IV) and the Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto, Canada (known as ROM I). The first autopsy was carried out on PUM I in the University of Pennsylvania Museum in 1972; the second, on PUM II, was at Wayne State University’s School of Medicine in Detroit in 1973.

The investigation of ROM I at the University of Toronto followed in 1974. The bodies known as PUM III and PUM IV represented a cheaper method of mummification.
All these autopsies generated considerable interest and publicity and revealed the range of scientific studies that could be undertaken on mummies. As in Manchester, continuing research on the evidence obtained from these autopsies resulted in extensive multidisciplinary studies. But because mummies are a finite, irreplaceable, and scientifically valuable resource, further work had to employ nondestructive, minimally invasive techniques, some of which remained to be sought and developed.
One of these technologies, radiology, had already been used as a first step, investigative procedure, but as the autopsies proved, unwrapping and dissection supplied information that was not obtainable from radiographs alone. Following the 1975 autopsy, the Manchester team therefore pioneered the use of endoscopes as a virtually nondestructive technique.
Although this method also has its limitations and the results obtained from this minimally invasive method offer less complete information than do autopsies, these minimal disadvantages offset the total loss incurred by using the destructive methods of autopsy.

RADIOLOGY

Radiology offers an entirely nondestructive method of visualizing the contents of a mummy.
Radiology-based investigations can expand knowledge about the cultural context and archaeological background of the mummy; for example, radiographs will show the type of mummification that has been used by indicating the presence of resin or natron (the agents used in mummification), any sacred jewelry placed between the wrappings, and any restoring or repairing of the body done by embalmers, such as false limbs or eyes or subcutaneous packing introduced through slits in the skin to give the body a more rounded, lifelike appearance.

X rays can also indicate if there has been any attempt to remove the brain and the method implemented. Such details can help the Egyptologist to identify the historical period to which the mummy belongs.
This type of investigation can also reveal specific details about individuals, including a person’s gender, age at death, state of health, and possibly the social class to which he or she belonged.
Despite the usefulness of this technique, however, it was not employed extensively in Egyptology until the 1970s.
Early Use Pioneering work had been undertaken as early as 1896, when the first radiographs of mummified remains—a child and a cat—were produced by Walter König in Frank-furt, Germany. The same year, just after König, an Englishman, Thurstan Holland, x-rayed a mummified bird. In 1898, Petrie used this procedure on some human remains, and in 1904, as part of a detailed investigation, Smith and Carter x-rayed the mummy of Tuthmosis IV, which had been discovered in a tomb at Thebes the previous year. The latter was the first occasion when radiography was used to study a royal mummy.

Gradually, radiology became widely used for the examination of mummies. Extensive surveys were undertaken in 1931 by Roy Lee Moodie who x-rayed the Egyptian and Peruvian mummies in the Chicago Field Museum’s collection.
In the 1960s, Peter Hugh Ker Gray systematically examined nearly 200 mummies in major museum collections in Britain and Europe.
Since the late 1960s, John E. Harris and Weeks have undertaken radiological studies on the royal mummies in Cairo to gain further information about mummification techniques and to elucidate aspects of the genealogy of the royal family in the New Kingdom.
However, until the 1970s, it was customary only to radiograph mummies on site. This implied various attendant limitations imposed by using mobile compact equipment attached to a local electricity supply. Conditions usually did not allow researchers to make accurate comparisons with modern patients.

Modern Use in the 1970s several projects were undertaken that changed this approach.
In 1973, the Manchester Egyptian Mummy Research Project established a methodology that standardized the conditions for radiographing mummies. The human and animal mummies in the Manchester Museum were then removed for short periods to the Manchester Royal Infirmary and the University Medical School where they were examined under near ideal conditions, successfully putting to test the methodology.
In the early 1970s, a series of autopsies and studies on mummies was undertaken in North America, in which preliminary radiography played a key role. X rays, for example, showed that the internal organs of the mummy of Nakht, a young weaver, were intact. Afterward, when the body was autopsied, it was possible to remove the intact brain, and in 1976, the scientists were able to examine it by means of computed tomography (CAT scanning) at Toronto General Hospital. Tomography is a method of obtaining radiographs of a section or slice of tissue in one plane. Computed tomography creates a high-tech three-dimensional image.
This pioneering work, which enabled the brain to be “dissected” noninvasively, was in effect the first “virtual” autopsy.

By removing mummies to specialized radiographic units, it was possible to use the latest techniques that were available for patients.
These included orbiting and fluoroscopy, which enabled scientists to evaluate the nature of the contents of the mummy and their arrangement within the wrappings. Each mummy was also examined by means of tomography. Where appropriate, further investigation was under- taken by using computed tomography, which can obtain transverse body sections five to thirteen millimeters in thickness that combined produce an image far superior to a conventional X ray.
Aside from its nondestructive advantages, radiology can provide evidence about disease in the skeleton and in any of the remaining dehydrated soft tissues. It can also shed light on such archaeological questions as the earliest evidence for removal of the brain (excerebration) in the embalming of Egyptian mummies.
It can also indicate an individual’s age at death based on evaluation of skeletal maturity and development. It has its limitations and problems, however, particularly in relation to age determination. The North American and European radiological standards of ossification of bone that have been used to define bone age in Egyptian mummies have given some results incongruous with available historical, archaeological, and inscriptional data that detail lengths of reigns. This problem occurs particularly in adults over twenty years of age.

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