Scottish Egyptology

The National Museums of Scotland Mummy Project

What is the project about ?

The NMS Mummy Project is a 4 year research project to investigate all the Egyptian mummies in the collection. This involves bringing together experts from various disciplines, including Egyptologists, conservators, scientists and photographers. The project is also involving specialists in forensic pathology, anatomy, oral medicine, radiology, human genetics and also facial reconstruction.

What results are hoped for ?

The investigators are looking for evidence of diet, disease, trauma, age at death and possible causes of death. There are also plans to reconstruct faces based on CT scans. This should be particularly interesting in the case of one of the mummies from the Roman period, which has a painted representation of the deceased inlaid into the mummy's head.

CT scanning of mummies

Radiological techniques can be used for non destructive testing of mummies. One such technique is computed tomography (CT), an X-Ray method which shows 'slices' through the body. This technique allows for a 3-d reconstruction to be made of the scanned object.

The first NMS mummy was examined in 1991. From the teeth it was possible to say that the mummy was 14 years old at death. Interestingly the scan showed that there was a hole in the skull. This wound appeared to have occurred before death, as there appears to be evidence of some healing around the margins of the hole. It could be possible that this is an early method of Trepanation, where a section of the skull is removed to relieve pressure on the brain, although this technique is unproven in ancient Egypt. Damage to the bones in the nose indicate that the brain was removed this way during the mummification process. This was the standard method used.

A second mummy was examined in 1995 using an advanced spiral scanner. This confirmed an age at death of 5 years. This mummy is interesting in that the body is highly disarticulated, suggesting that it was not mummified for some time after death

The mummies from Qurneh

Some of the most impressive items on display in the National Museums of Scotland were discovered by Sir Flinders Petrie in 1909 at Qurneh. This burial was exceptionally rich in grave goods. Petrie himself described it as 'probably ... the richest and most detailed undisturbed burial that has been completely recorded and published'. The artifacts from this excavation date from the 17th Dynasty. Notable among the items presently on display in the museum is the lid of the woman's coffin, which is heavily gilded and painted with blue and black pigments

Both mummies have been in storage, and until this year had never been examined since they were unwrapped by Petrie nearly 90 years ago.

The bones were unpacked on the 29th January 1996. The wrappings of brown paper and newspaper were also found to contain a large number of small faience beads.

The bones were laid out to form the almost complete skeletons of a woman and a child. They were found to be in excellent condition, with the cartilage exceptionally well preserved. From the skeletons it was not possible to determine the cause of death but age could be estimated. The woman is thought to be about 21, with the child about 3.

Samples of DNA from the woman and child are to be analysed by experts at Cambridge University to establish if there was any relationship between them

At the time of the original investigation, Petrie suggested that the skull of the woman was not typical of an average ancient Egyptian woman and that several of the artifacts found may be foreign (possibly Syrian). DNA analysis may reveal the origins of the woman.

Mummy Project Update

Dental Examination of the Mummies

Three of the mummies in the collection have been subjected to dental examination using a panoramic X-ray unit at the Edinburgh Dental Hospital. This "Panoramic Radiograph" gives a clear detail of the jaw structure, showing details of the teeth, and also of the roots.

The first mummies to be examined were the two from Qurneh. The teeth of the adult show moderate wear. Most of the teeth are present, with only a few lost after death. Two of the teeth are slightly decayed. This would have not been uncommon in Ancient Egypt as a lot of sweet things, particularly a weak type of beer and honey formed an appreciable part of the diet.

There is visible staining on the teeth on the left hand side of the jaw. This may be due to the body lying on it's side after death. Dental evidence indicates that the woman was between 21 and 30 at death.

The child had a virtually complete set of baby teeth, with one lost after death. The indicated age at death was 2 to 3 years.

The third mummy examined, from a child found at Hawara, had more developed teeth, with the molars beginning to erupt. This indicates an age at death of 5 to 6. The teeth and jaw appear to be healthy.

Conservation Assessment of Egyptian Textiles

Textiles, particularly linen, are often found in Egyptian burials. Textiles were used as mummy wrappings, clothes, nets or bags, or sometimes as internal packing. Old or worn out household textiles such as clothing, sheets, towels and bags were frequently used to wrap or pack the mummy.

The look for obvious signs of wear to indicate the re-use of every day household textiles in the mummification process.

Conservation of a mummy

One of the mummies in the collection was already unwrapped when it was acquired by the collection in 1911. The body was resting on the underside of the cartonage case in it's coffin.

A conservation assessment in 1991 showed that the mummy itself had suffered a lot of post mortem damage and was covered in dirt. The coffin had collapsed and was in a poor condition. The base contained plaster debris and also damage from insects boring into the wood. Although the damage was extensive and the remains were fragile, the mummy itself showed a very high quality of mummification. The finger and toe prints are still visible for example.

It was initially hoped to carry out repairs on the body itself. It was discovered however that the upper and lower parts of the body were out of alignment. Any repairs would require the body to be properly aligned, and it was decided that to correct this would cause more damage to the fragile remains. After discussion it was decided not to attempt any of the proposed repairs.

The coffin was cleared of dust and dirt by careful vacuuming. This revealed the painted figure of Sokaris, the god of death and resurrection.

When the body was cleaned it was found to be coated in a thick layer of resin. Analysis showed this to be Kauri copal resin. This actually originates in New Zealand, so was obviously not original.

Once the resin was identified it was carefully removed using a solvent which did not damage the skin. This greatly improved the appearance of the mummy.

What happens next ?

The next stage is to CT scan the remaining 9 mummies in the collection. In addition further work has to be carried out to understand more fully some features observed in the two mummies which have been scanned. Once this has been done further medical examinations are planned based on the results. It is hoped to find out more about the possible Trepanation of the skull and the presence of TB in the young female.

Information on this page was obtained from a mummy project fact sheet produced by the NMS

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