The Contribution of Mummy Studies to Egyptology and the History of Disease

May 5, 2011

The Contribution of Mummy Studies to Egyptology and the History of Disease

Unlike art representations or literary sources, evidence provided by human remains has not been distorted or altered to fit preconceived or propagandist concepts. In their religious art, for example, the Egyptians depicted the wealthier classes in an idealized way so that they could hope to enjoy eternal youth, beauty, and freedom from disease in the afterlife; however, the physical evidence of the mummified remains clearly indicates that even the upper classes suffered a wide variety of illnesses and disabling conditions.
Human remains provide a unique opportunity to study disease, diet, living conditions, familial relationships, and population movements in an ancient population. In this sense, Egyptian mummies are particularly significant and can add to knowledge of the evolution of disease.

This is partly because, unlike in some other cultures where only the skeletal remains are preserved, the tissues of Egyptian bodies also remain. Also, because the modern population of the Nile Valley remains relatively unchanged since ancient times, there is an almost unparalleled opportunity here to compare evidence from the mummies with modern medical data and to trace the evolution and patterns of disease over several thousands of years.


Since the early unrolling of mummies, when only the facilities for anatomical investigations and studies on the bandages and associated insects existed, paleopathology, the study of disease in ancient remains, has advanced considerably. Major developments have occurred in medical and scientific technology, and these can often be adopted for the investigation of mummies. Also, two key procedures have emerged in palaeopathology: the building of teams that bring together the skills of experts in many fields and the development of virtually nondestructive methods of investigation, focusing particularly on the use of industrial endoscopes so that wrapped mummies can be studied as noninvasively as possible. These projects have often added specific knowledge about the mummification procedure itself, confirming the accounts of Classical writers and expanding G. Elliot Smith’s pioneering studies in this area.


In 1901, Smith began an extensive study of bodies discovered in southern Egypt, paying particular attention to the mummification procedures and bone measurements. With his coworkers W. R. Dawson and F. W. Jones, he also became involved in the examination of some 6,000 mummies that had been discovered and rescued by the Archaeological Survey of Nubia, a project established to survey the archaeological heritage of Nubia before much of it was obliterated as a result of the first dam built at Aswan at the beginning of the twentieth century.
A few years later, in 1908, Dr. Margaret Murray unwrapped and autopsied the pair of mummies from the Tomb of Two Brothers at Rifeh, then residing at the University of Manchester in England. (The complete tomb group had been incorporated into the Manchester Museum collection in 1906.)
With her multi-disciplinary team and intensive postautopsy studies, she established a methodology for examining the mummies and their associated funerary foods. The entire project and its results were published in 1910.


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