Secret lives of ancient Egyptians revealed by CT scans of mummies

Dental decay was a serious problem in ancient Egypt, and tattoos were already being inked on skin by the 8th century AD. These are just two of the discoveries uncovered by new techniques used to virtually unwrap eight mummies, revealing unprecedented detail about their age, diet and health.

This article was first published on History Extra in April 2014

Mummy undergoing CT scan at Royal Brompton Hospital © Trustees of British Museum

Curators at the British Museum collaborated with medical experts and other scientists in a project that used computerised tomography (CT) scanning and 3D visualisation to gain new insights into life and death in the Nile Valley up to 5,500 years ago.

The team studied a diverse selection of eight individuals from the museum’s collection of 120 mummies retrieved from Egypt and Sudan. Among the eight – who lived at various points between 3500 BC and AD 700 – are a young female temple singer, a man of high status and a child from the Roman era. Non-invasive scanning techniques were employed to determine the age of each one at death, the health problems they’d suffered, and the manner of mummification.

These technologies were also used for detailed examinations of funerary objects and the contents of canopic jars (in which the viscera of mummified people were stored), and to analyse the embalming substances used.

The project’s discoveries are revealed in a new book titled Ancient Lives, New Discoveries, accompanying a major interactive exhibition at the British Museum, opening on 22 May.

To find out more, History Extra interviewed curator John Taylor and Daniel Antoine, who is responsible for the museum’s human remains collection:

Q: What was the aim of the project, and how does the technology work?

JT: The vast majority of the mummies in our collection are still wrapped. To look inside, we’ve used state-of-the-art scanning and visualisation technology, providing much clearer images than any seen before.

Using CT scans to examine mummies is not new in itself – it’s been done for the past 20 years – but the technology is developing all the time, and we are now able to explore most of the mummies’ features, manipulating the scans and zooming in on details.

DA: We’re able to see clearly things that would not have been discernable just a few years ago. We are getting as close as possible to seeing what’s underneath the mummies, without unwrapping them.

X-rays have been used to examine Egyptian mummies for the past 40–50 years, but older scans are quite blurry and fuzzy. You can often make out shapes, but don’t know what they are. Now we can see things with greater clarity.

Q: Can you tell us more about the mummies you’ve studied?

DA: We deliberately chose people from different parts of Egypt, covering a long period of time [from 3500 BC to AD 700] and various walks of life.

They include a naturally preserved young man from the Predynastic period; a priest’s daughter; a temple singer; an unidentified man of high status; an unusual mummy from the Roman period; a young child, also from the Roman period; and a medieval woman sporting a Christian tattoo.

To view more images of the mummies, click here.

Q: Can you tell us more about the Roman child?

DA: Very little is known about attitudes towards child mortality in ancient Egypt. Child mummies are unusual, so we were interested to examine this one.

The mummy case was big enough to hold an adult; however, we knew from X-rays taken years ago that the person inside was young, though we did not know her age at death. The new technology allowed us to visualise her developing teeth and work out that she was approximately seven years old when she died.

You can make out her nose, lips and hair – it’s a very powerful image. You really feel as if you are seeing her as she would have looked at the time of her death. The cause of her untimely demise is yet to be determined; she may have died of an infection that would not have been detectable on the scan.

Q: What have you discovered about the other mummies?

JT: One of our objectives was to recreate what it was like to live on the Nile 4,000 years ago. Many mummy exhibitions tend to focus on death, but we wanted to look at life, the experience of living – what the individuals looked like, how tall they were, what illnesses they suffered.

DA: We have been able to gauge the age of the mummies more accurately, and learned more about diseases from which they suffered.

We found that four of the six adults had very bad dental health, with evidence of tooth loss and decay, and numerous abscesses at the roots. Dental abscesses and associated infections would have caused severe discomfort, pain and swelling. Such infections could have resulted in septicaemia, which may even have been the cause of death of some of the individuals.

We were surprised by the prevalence of dental disease, and the individuals’ abilities to live with that level of disease and infection. Some of the mummies had already lost several teeth, presumably because of previous abscesses.

Plaque was found in the arteries of two mummies – a major cause of cardiovascular disease. These may have been elite individuals, with a diet rich in animal fats such as cholesterol. It provides an interesting parallel to modern societies in which cardiovascular disease is one of the biggest killers.

We found a medieval tattoo on the inner thigh of one of the mummies – a woman aged 35 at death. This is believed to be the first example of a tattoo discovered on a mummy from Medieval Sudan.

The tattoo is in the shape of an angel with a crucifix above it, and is a monogram – a symbol made by overlapping the ancient Greek letters of the name Michael.

The archangel Michael was a patron saint of Sudan when the studied individual lived, circa AD 700 – during the Christian period. So we think that the woman must have believed that the tattoo would give her protection.

Q: Can you remind us about the process of mummification?

JT: There are two kinds of mummification – natural and artificial. Natural mummification occurs when a body desiccates after being buried in hot, arid conditions – for example, in a shallow pit in sand.

Artificial mummification was undertaken as soon as possible after death. First, internal organs were removed, with the brain being extracted via the nostrils.

The body was then left for 35–40 days, with salts introduced to absorb bodily fluids, preventing bacteria from thriving.

It was then coated in oil and resin to further preserve it, and wrapped in layers of cloth. In some cases a mask was placed over the head; in doing so, the individual became God-like, ready for the afterlife.

Mummies were buried with objects such as food and furniture that would, it was believed, give them protection and ensure a safe passage to the next life.

While examining one of the mummies, we discovered part of the tool used to remove the brain had stuck in his skull, presumably having broken off during the process. It was interesting to see that embalming did not always go to plan – mistakes were made.

We know relatively little about the tools used in mummification, nor what they looked like, so to find one is amazing.

Q: What can visitors expect from the exhibition?

JT: The public will be able to participate in the exploration process. You’ll see the mummies up close, alongside visualisations of the CT scans. We’ve also created 3D prints of some of the objects buried with the mummies, using data from the scans.

Q: Why do you think mummies continue to fascinate?

JT: When viewing a mummy, you are seeing something from the remote past that you recognise to be a real person – you see skin, face and hair. That is a very powerful experience.
It makes you think how similar mummified people are to us – but also how different.

DA: The public will see these as human remains, not as mummies. And the fact that these people suffered from similar health problems as us – dental and cardiovascular diseases – helps us connect with them. It shows that we have been battling the same conditions for thousands of years.

JT: Egypt is famous for its art and architecture, yet its people lived short lives during which they suffered from illnesses and discomfort. Knowing this heightens our admiration for them. They should be accorded great respect.

The Ancient Lives, New Discoveries exhibition will run at the British Museum from 22 May to 30 November. To find out more, click here.

To view more images of the mummies, click here.

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