Unravelling mummies' secrets


Modern scanning and imaging techniques are allowing scientists to peek behind the mummy’s shroud and learn what life was like for the rich and privileged of ancient Egypt, writes ANTHONY KING

THE LADY TENTDINEBU reclines in a corner room of the National Museum of Ireland in Dublin. Her brilliantly coloured encasement tells us she once lived in ancient Egypt. When she died around 800 BC in Thebes, her body was preserved for the afterlife. Today you can admire the texts and religious imagery decorating her mummified body.

Such mummies are providing modern science with a view into their ancient world. Modern imaging techniques allowed experts to suggest famed Tutankhamun died of malaria (about 1,324 BC). And medical scans show diseases such as atherosclerosis (hardening of the arteries) were common among ancient Egyptians; even cancer has been detected.

The National Museum of Scotland in Edinburgh is running a special exhibition, Fascinating Mummies, until May 27th, which focuses on what scientists today can tell us about ancient Egypt.

Experts had unwrapped mummies in the past to study them, and this was often done in public as pure spectacle. “They have had a bit of a rough ride, the mummies. When they died they expected to rest for eternity in a wonderful afterlife. We wanted to give them back their dignity,” says Maureen Barrie from the Edinburgh museum.

The Egyptians believed speaking a person’s name gave them greater kudos in the afterlife, so the names of the mummies are listed at the beginning of the exhibition.

The sarcophagus, mummy-shaped coffins and mummy of Ankh-hor, a priest of a Theban temple who served around 650 BC, are displayed. They came from the National Museum of Antiquities in Leiden, Holland, which brought more than 250 artefacts to the Edinburgh exhibition.

Recent CT scans revealed the shape and location of amulets and objects placed by embalmers between the wrappings and on his body. A scarab beetle – symbolising rebirth – was placed over the abdominal incision through which Ankh-hor’s organs were removed. Scans show he was about 1.6 metres tall, died between the ages of 32 and 50, and had good teeth – unusual in ancient Egypt. His brain was taken out, but his heart remained inside for judgment day.

Close by is a mummy discovered by a Scottish Egyptologist in 1857; scientific analysis has shown its black surface is due to a layer of beeswax and pistachio plant resin.A high-resolution scanner indicated she was slightly built and aged between 25 and 29. It also revealed amulets that can’t be seen on the surface, says Dr James Tate, head of conservation and analytical research at the museum. This includes a gold-foil scarab on the top of her head and a circular gold disc over her midriff.

Tate takes a replica of the scarab from his pocket. He explains that scan data from Edinburgh was used by a group at the University of Liverpool to produce this exact titanium model.

A scroll was detected lying under her right hand, against her right thigh, and Tate believes that ongoing research using micro-CT scanning to read rolled scrolls means that “someday we will read this scroll and learn her name”.

“Egyptians believed that they would live again after they died, in a kind of Egypt, only better. They would take scrolls of papyrus with them as a guide to the afterlife because it was a long and perilous journey,” says Dr Hanneke Kik of the Leiden museum. She guesses that the rolled scroll contains magical spells and hints on how to get across dangerous rivers or bypass demons.

Papyrus is a paper made out of a sedge plant that grew prolifically in the Nile delta. It grew only in Egypt in the ancient world, but they exported it throughout the Mediterranean, says Prof Brian McGing of Trinity College Dublin, an expert on papyrus.

“It only survives in Egypt because it must be kept dry and in darkness,” he says. There were few examples discovered until the end of the 19th century, when they were uncovered in ancient rubbish dumps, which had produced their own microclimate and preserved the scrolls.

McGing works on deciphering and translating Greek writing on ancient Egyptian papyrus. Perhaps 95 percent of papyrus discovered in the dumps and elsewhere was documentary, recording the routines of daily life: letters, tax receipts, official documents, land registers.

Alexander the Great conquered Egypt in 332 BC, and his general Ptolemy took over after his death. This ushered in the Greek period (332 to 30 BC), which ended with the death of the last pharaoh, Cleopatra, who was of Macedonian extraction.

“It is a Greek dynasty with a huge explosion of documentation. And that is what I work with,” says McGing. Much of this material is now in digitised form, and technological progress has made it easier to read text and even to decipher previously invisible text markings.

During the Greek period, most Egyptians continued to live as they had done for centuries, and belief in the afterlife continued, with Egyptians continuing to fill their tombs with the necessary provisions. The National Museum of Ireland is home to a collection of magical figurines, or Shabtis, which were placed in tombs to perform any manual tasks that might be asked of the deceased in the afterlife.

Ancient Egyptians believed that what was written or depicted could come about magically in the next world. To ensure rebirth and safe passage into the afterlife, funerary texts (essentially magic spells) would be placed with the deceased.

The Chester Beatty Library in Dublin has a Book of Coming Forth by Day (better known today as the Book of the Dead) from around 300 BC. This illustrates the judgment of a woman’s soul, as the jackal-headed god Anubis weighs her heart against a feather. If it balanced with the feather, she could move on into the afterlife. If not, her heart was eaten by Ammit, the devourer.

“If you were a rich person you displayed this before you died, so that everyone could see what a wonderful book of the dead you had produced,” says McGing. “Some found in tombs were in absolute perfect shape. The ink is glistening on some of them.”

Making a mummy: Preparing for afterlife

Survival in the afterlife depended on keeping the body intact, and the art of mummification evolved over thousands of years. The first step was to wash the body. Then the brain might be removed through the nose with a hooked implement. Internal organs were taken out though a cut in the body and washed, dried and preserved in jars (examples of these limestone jars with jackal, human and falcon-headed lids can be seen in the National Museum of Ireland). The heart was left within the body for judgment day or an amulet was put in its place.

The corpse was covered in natron, a natural salt, for about a month. This dehydrated the body and removed fat, and acted as an anti-bacterial. The body was then rinsed and oils and unguents were applied to preserve skin elasticity.

An embalming priest wrapped the body to create the classic mummy, which was covered with a shroud. The lady Tentdinebu was wrapped in linen bandages and cartonnage, a sort of papier-mâché made of linen or papyrus and plaster.

Animals were mummified as offerings to the god. There was such a demand that researchers have identified production plants in which kittens were killed. There were also plenty of fakes. The Scottish museum had a “baboon” that was in fact a bird, and some animal mummies contained just clay.

But ancient Egypt wasn’t all about death and afterlife. The Chester Beatty Library has a papyrus scroll containing some three-quarters of known Egyptian love poems and one of the few mythological texts from ancient Egypt, The Contendings of Horus and Seth.

“When the original translations were done in the British Museum [in the 1930s], the scholar was embarrassed and didn’t want to translate it, because there is quite a bit of erotica and violence in it,” says Dr Jill Unkel. Dated to 1,160 BC, this papyrus is one of the oldest objects in the collection.