The making of a modern mummy. By: Young, Ed, History Today, 00182753, Feb98, Vol. 48, Issue 2

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The making of a modern mummy. By: Young, Ed, History Today, 00182753, Feb98, Vol. 48, Issue 2

When Mr. M, an elderly Baltimore man, died of heart failure in 1994 he donated his body to science. Like Rameses the Great, the Egyptian Pharaoh who died in 1225 BC, his passing was treated with all due reverence. Both were anointed with oils and spices, and carefully wrapped in linen shrouds upon which were written farewell messages in hieroglyphics.

But where Rameses, responsible for building the great temple of Abu Simbel, had Anubis, Egyptian god of the dead, watching as he was prepared, anointed and wrapped, Mr M's preservation was supervised by two American scholars: Egyptologist Bob Brier, chairman of the Philosophy Department at Long Island University, and Ronald Wade director of Anatomical Services at the University of Maryland School of Medicine.

Their purpose, according to Wade, was to gain an understanding of the embalming process by recreating the procedure exactly. `We pieced together all the clues until we finally we came up with the answer just like a detective story', added Brier. For, although many Egyptian mummies have been unwrapped and X-rayed, the ritual has remained a secret known only to the priests who carried out the process.

The Greek historian Herodotus, who visited Egypt around 450 BC, did describe in graphic terms the use of a sharp black stone to slice open the abdomen and the method of removing the brain through the nose. But even this description, translated by early Egyptologists, falls short in some important details. So when Mr M died and facilities at the University School of Medicine were made available, the researchers were able to begin their experiment to make a thoroughly modern mummy.

For Brier, it was the culmination of research into mummification which began fifteen years earlier, when he commissioned a metalsmith to make replicas of ancient Egyptian tools using the same formula as the ancient Egyptians. He had ceramic (Canopic) jars made to contain human organs. In Arizona, Brier found a man who could shape a surgical knife from obsidian, a chunk of black volcanic lava resembling bottle glass.

Eventually, when news came through that their donor corpse was ready, Brier travelled to Egypt to gather oils, spices, linen and 600 lbs of natron, a natural salt-like compound, used by the Egyptians to dehydrate and preserve bodies. This was obtained, as in the days of the Pharaohs, from the shores of Wadi Natrun, a dry lake between Cairo and Alexandria.

Mummification of Mr M began in May 1994. The body was eviscerated using the obsidian stone to make a five-inch incision in the abdomen. `It made a clean, sharp cut' said Brier, `and, with the exception of the heart, all the organs were removed and placed in jars. The cavities were then rinsed with sweet-smelling palm wine, myrrh and frankincense and packed with bags of natron to dry the corpse from the inside out.'

This was a vital step, as the ancient embalmers had discovered 3000 years earlier; without water, bacteria cannot grow and tissue remains intact. But there was a snag when the two scholars tried to follow Herodotus' version of removing the brain through the nose. Originally, the priests used a thin bronze needle with a hook or a spiral at the end to remove the brain a bit at a time. But in practice the technique proved difficult. Instead, Brier and Wade had to pulverize the brain into an almost liquid state, squirt in water, then turn the body over to allow the emulsified tissue to drain through the nostrils.

The next stage was to try to simulate the environment of Egypt as closely as possible. ‘The body was covered from head to toe with the natron and placed in a special room heated to 46 degrees C (115 degrees F)', according to Wade.

Wade had his doubts about Herodotus. `Early Egyptologists translated his version as meaning that the corpse was placed in a vat of dissolved patron. But no such vats have ever been found to support this idea', he said. The clincher came when they realized why the embalming tables were so wide--almost two meters (6 ft) square. `It was so the body could be covered in a mound of natron to dry it out', he said.

After thirty-five days the body was uncovered, and it was found that the salts had removed about 100 lbs of water from the body. Mr M, now considerably darker, was a mummy! His new name, to mark the special occasion, was `Mumab I'. The natron was removed and a two-step wrapping process began.

First, the body was rubbed with the traditional mixture of five oils: frankincense, myrrh, palms, lotus and cedar. Then the torso limbs, fingers and toes were individually wrapped in linen, using tree resin as glue. For the next five months it lay in its heated `tomb'. Wade and Brier then removed tissue samples for biopsy and swabbed the body inside and out, checking for signs of bacteria.

Once they were satisfied that the experiment had thus far been a success, the researchers began the final wrapping. The entire body was swathed in bands of linen, following the method used on the body of Tuthmosis. The process was slow and took several days to complete. But where Tuthmosis and Rameses would have been placed in a sealed sarcophagus, Mumab I was entombed in a Zeigler case--an airtight shipping case made of galvanized steel. Instead of a steel cover, Wade and Brier had a Plexiglas lid made so that they could see a gauge inside measuring the temperature and humidity.

In keeping with tradition, the jars containing the body organs and one of the wooden `ankhs', the Egyptian symbol for life, were also placed in the casket. The body has recently been removed and a series of scans made to compare the internal body structure of a two-year-old mummy with mummies 2,000 to 3,000 years old.

How long will the mummy stay preserved? Wade believes it could last a thousand years but says he will be content to have it around for ten. `There is still a lot we can learn from the mummy', he says `end if it shows signs of decay we may have to go back to the drawing board'.

Update… Mummies: Back from the Dead by Morgen Peck

(DISCOVER magazine published online October 15, 2007) excerpt

“The mummy has been at room temperature for [almost] 15 years, and there’s been no sign of decay at all. So we think we have it right,” Brier says. But that wasn't the end of the body's story. Instead, the researchers donated to science a second time: They offer the mummy up to other scientists who want to practice research techniques for use on actual ancient mummies. Whereas the pharaohs sought eternal peace through mummification, this modern mummy will likely have scientists poking at it for decades.

Brier and Wade generously distribute tissue samples for all kinds of research. This year, bone samples from the modern mummy helped Angelique Corthals, a biomedical Egyptologist from the University of Manchester in England, determine the best way to isolate DNA from ancient specimens. She was particularly interested in working on a mummy that many suspect to be the remains of Queen Hatshepsut, the most powerful of only four female pharaohs. The Supreme Council of Antiquities in Egypt was looking for someone to isolate nuclear DNA from the mummy (a very difficult feat that had never been done) and confirm its identity by comparing the DNA with samples from other mummies thought to be Hatshepsut’s father and grandmother. But they needed someone they could trust. “When you extract tissue from a mummy, you have to be very careful because the curators will obviously not want to have their mummies destroyed,” Corthals says.

Corthals experimented with samples from the modern mummy and found she could retrieve plenty of DNA from the bones but nothing useful in the skin or other tissues. That was enough to convince the council to let Corthals go to work on the would-be Hatshepsut. Soon after, Corthals found herself in a sterile room boring a biopsy needle deep into the skeleton of one of Egypt’s greatest historical treasures while the antiquities police peered at her anxiously through a window.

The modern mummy “helped in refining protocols of extraction and also in pointing out which places in the body were the best to retrieve the most amount of DNA,” says Corthals. Her work this year has yielded the first examples of nuclear DNA from an Egyptian mummy and strong preliminary evidence that the lost queen of Egypt has been found.

The thoroughly modern mummy has proved to be persistently popular. Brier boasts that he gets requests for tissue samples from scientists “all over the world” for all kinds of projects. He and Wade return to the body at least once a year to take samples and see how well it’s holding up over time. It’s certainly a lot of interruptions for a mummy that’s trying to fall into the rhythm of eternity, but for an unusually productive body donor, it’s just the price of fame.

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