quinta-feira, 3 de março de 2011

The Scientific Study of the Egyptian Mummies

The exact origin of the Egypt Collection is unknown but it is accepted that Nicolau Fiengo brought it from Marseille, France. Fiengo stated it came of Giovanni Battista Belzoni’s missions. According to Belzoni the objects that came to Brazil had been found in his “excavations” in Karnak, the “Realm of Amun”, and in the Teban necropolis. This provenance was confirmed because a great number of the objects from the Emperor Pedro I collection were proved to belong to Teban priests and officers.
That collection has more than five hundred objects, approximately half of them are exposed. There are works of great artistic and archeological value as the beautiful III Intermediate Period and Late Period coffins of priests Hori, Pestjef and Harsiese, besides other objects. Among the most valuable as well as interesting objects under the museuologic and scientific point of view, are the human and animal mummies. Mummies are all the preserved remains of carcasses naturally or artificially preserved against decomposition. Although mummification processes are used by different cultures all over the planet, the word was generally used for the intentionally preserved bodies prepared by the ancient Egyptians.
The study of mummified human bodies gives us an insight to the Ancient Egypt way of life, to their lifestyle, health and funerary practices. This reduces the bias caused by the tentative interpretation of their artistic or written testimonies. The Egyptian word for mummy was sah, that means “eternal image” or “noble image”. The word mummy comes from the Persian through the Arabian word mummia “bitumen” or mum “beeswax” or “pitch”. The Arabians were the first to believe that the preservation of the carcasses was assured by the use of bitumen that explained the black color of the skin. In fact, the bitumen was only occasionally used in the mummification after 1500 BC.
Natural mummification, that is to say non intentional mummification, produced by environmental conditions, is the result of burial in the hot sands of the desert. Those mummies are found in the pre-Dynastic Egypt (c. 4.500 BC). Otherwise, parallel to the sophistication of the architecture of the tombs the Egyptian highest social ranks started to develop artificial mummification processes starting about the Naqada II Period (c. 3400 BC). The real goal of the embalming practice was to create a simulacrum of the real body, thus the mummy could be a treated carcass, parts of it, or just to be similar to it. What was really expected was that once the mummy was embalmed and prepared, it could resist for a long time as a kind of mirror image to the spirit. They believed that the image was necessary to assure eternal life to the spirit in the Land of the Dead.
The process basically involved three stages. The first one was evisceration, when the internal organs were removed, dried and wrapped, before being stored in special canopic vases, or returning to the abdominal cavity. The heart was kept inside the chest, because it was considered the home of the soul, or the “organ of the resurrection”. Then the body was dehydrated with natron that was applied directly to the body, outside and inside. That “divine salt”, mixed of sodium carbonate and bicarbonate, was found in natural deposits in the Wadi Natrun, about 60km west from Cairo. After the body was dry, it was cleaned and prepared with plant resins and oils and carefully wrapped in linen.
Seventy days were necessary to the complete mummification, 40 to dry the body, 30 to prepare it with oils and resins, wrappings and placing the proper amulets. During the process the priests read prays and magic spells while burning incense. Artificial mummification was created exclusively to the use of the highest social ranks in the Egyptian society, and it was practiced until the Christian era.
Besides human mummies, millions of animal mummies of different species were also prepared by the Egyptians that considered them avatars to the gods. Some mummified bodies can be more perfect than the real beings, as mummifying in Egypt was in fact to prepare the body to represent its ideal image. This is very important to understand some tricks and techniques used by the embalmers to keep the appearance of the adult or infant bodies, as well as animals.
The first Egyptologist to use radiographs was W. Flinders Petrie who in 1896 X-rayed the mummies he had discovered in Egypt. But the low power of the radiological devices of his time allowed just the exploration of images of the extremities of the members. During the following years, radiology came to be one of the most important tools in the investigation of the Egyptian mummification. In 1897 Dr. Block did in Wien the first radiography of the complete body of an Egyptian mummy. The first time when a Royal mummy was X-rayed in Cairo, his age was younger than expected by the historical documents.
Studies of the Royal mummies proceeded in 1912, when Elliot Smith published the first complete description of the Royal mummies in the Cairo Museum coming to be the pioneer in the study of the mummification techniques, in spite of the precarious radiological results. In 1913 the chemistry named Marcellin Bertolleti described the first vertebral anomaly, an abnormal fusion of the lumbar vertebrae and the sacrum, in the X-rays of a mummy of the XI dynasty (c. 2061 BC). From this moment on X-raying mummies became very popular, especially between the decades of 1920 and 1930.
In 1931 the pathologist Roy L. Moodie took radiographs of a series of 17 mummies, 7 of children from different periods, including one of the Pre-Dynastic Period, revealing signs of arthrosis, atherosclerosis and dental attrition. The radiographs were of great quality showing the growth lines in two children of the Roman Period. Moodie has also studied mummified animals. In 1942, F. J. Onckheere published a radiologic study complemented by the unwrapping and necropsy of the mummy of Butehamon, the Royal scribe.
In Brazil, the first radiographic images of the Egyptian collection of the National Museum were done in 1960, by Dr. Roberval B. de Menezes. Those images give an idea of the skeletons inside the mummies but many questions remained unsolved. The need to clear the nature and the state of conservation of that collection, as well as to characterize those funerary testimonies of a distant past is an international demand, as this is the major Egyptian collection in Southern Hemisphere. The first try to obtain tomographic images of the same mummy was in 2001. Using a portable tomographic apparatus developed by the Laboratory of Nuclear Instrumentation of COPPE/UFRJ, by Dr. Ricardo Tadeu Lopes and his team, the first images were obtained and developed in digital devices. The images are allowed to check the state of preservation of this mummy.
In 1963 George Harrison X-rayed some mummified remains found in the Royal tomb number 55 in the Valley of the Kings, possibly belonging to the King Akhenaton. A later comparison of the images with the images of the mummy of Tutankhamun showed a huge similarity, confirming they could be first grade relatives.
Peter Hugh Ker Gray X-rayed and published in 1966 the mummies of the National Museum of Antiquities, in Leiden, three of which belong to the same and select group of mummies wrapped in a unique way, similar to the mummy number 158 of the National Museum of Rio de Janeiro. In 1968 the same investigator and Warren Royal Dawson published the catalog of mummies and human remains of the British Museum. In the volume they combined archaeological and radiographic analysis of 133 mummies, among then the one number 6704, similar to the Leiden trio and the one in the National Museum in Brazil. In the same year, George Harrison X-rayed the mummy of Tutankhamun using for the first time a portable device taken into the Tomb, and did the same with one of the fetuses found in that tomb.
In 1980 Aidan Cockburn and his team published the results of a multidisciplinary investigation conducted between 1972 and 1979 in four human mummies, numbered I to IV and named PUM (Pennsylvania University Museum). That project followed a protocol of analysis established by two previous multidisciplinary projects, the DIA I (Detroit Institute of Art) in 1971 and the ROM I (Royal Ontario Museum) in 1974, when the CT scan were successfully used for the first time in the skull of a mummy named Nakht.
The first tomogaphies of Egyptian mummies were in 1977, in Toronto, Canada. The first tridimensional reconstruction with the images of an Egyptian mummy was in 1986, by Peter Lewin, who studied a human head and a cat. In 1982 C. Roubet and Roger Lichtenberg developed a new project to study 17 mummies that were X-rayed directly in the field, during the excavation of the Duch necropolis, at the Kharga oasis, Ptolemaic to Roman period. This investigation followed until 1994 with Françoise Dunand and Roger Lichtenberg. Meanwhile in 1992 the Egyptian Antiquities Organization promoted a radiological study of 59 mummies of the Roman Period at the Ain Labakha necropolis, also at Kharga.
In 1987 Patrice Josset and Jean-Claude Goyon necropsied one mummy of the Guimet Museum of Natural History of Lyon, after a detailed documentation based on radiological and tomographic techniques. That was the first time a complete project of this kind was documented in movies, resulting in the creation of two successful documentaries for the French TV, one of them about necropsies and the other about the analysis of the materials collected during the necropsia, such as wrapping textiles, pollen and insects. In 1990 the first tomography of a mummy inside its coffin was done, mad=king it possible to study it without opening.
In 2001 Salima Ikran, of the American University in Cairo, started the Animal Mummy Project, to study the animals of the Cairo Museum, with a system of “adoption” of animal mummies, so that radiological study was so far sponsored by private donors.
In 2003 the National Museum of the University of Rio de Janeiro, in a partnership with the National Institute of Technology, the Oswaldo Cruz Foundation and the Clinic for Image Diagnosis has started a pioneer project in Latin America: to study the human and animal Egyptian mummies gathering more information about the life conditions and funerary practices in the Ancient Egypt.
When Martin Raven published in 2005 a radiological atlas for the collection of human and animal mummies of the National Museum of Antiquities at Leiden, it was finally possible to start a comparative study between the young of the Roman Period of National Museum of Rio de Janeiro and her German counterparts. At the same year the Supreme Council of Antiquities of Egypt, starting from the tomographic study of the Tutankhamun mummy, provided new information about the physical conditions of the young King and the possible cause of his death. The use of non destructive methods of analysis of mummies also helped to redirect the decisions about necropsies, and the decision to open the mummies is now more based in the state of preservation of the object than in the need for scientific information.
The continuous progress of the non invasive medical techniques with their powerful images allow to eliminate superimpositions and distinguish different materials, helping to visualize throughout those objects and describe them in details. Although those studies are more and more used for human mummies, they are still less used for animal mummies.

Thanks to the use of more sophisticated technologies such as the helical tomographies, a lot of progress was possible. The studies are more conservative and in great number. It is possible to confirm the bodies inside the wrappings, to identify old and modern counterfeits, to check the prosthesis in the real mummified bodies, as well as the different materials included or modifying them, to confirm the identity of the mummified individuals, to distinguish animals and humans, to check the integrity of the mummified packs, to confirm the presence of amulets and other objects, to identify different techniques used to prepare the bodies. The 3D reconstruction and traveling in the inside of the objects, virtually penetrating the cavities and spaces opened inside the bodies and the coffins are now totally possible. The computerized tomography characterizes the real virtual necropsia of those testimonies of the past. Facial reconstruction is also possible with the 3D images and prototypes of the skulls from inside the mummies, as provided for Tutankhamun, in Egypt, and the Beauty from Tebas, in Brazil. The results are much appreciated in the museums and for the general public.
Some of the results of the CT scanning of the mummies in the Museu Nacional are helping to know objects and techniques used for mummification. Layers of higher density along the body’s contour help to define resin applied directly to the first linen wrappings and skin. Resin levels inside the braincase confirm the resting position of the body after the embalming process had finished. Different layers of linen of varying thickness, and linen stuffing inside the thorax and abdominal cavity helped to recover the appearance of a living body, even improving female contours, like in the female young of the Roman period. Linen plugs used to close openings used by the embalmers to empty the cavities of the body, and can also be seen and studied. Subsequent wrappings used for restoring the mummified bodies, as in the child and the head of Bela de Tebas, are interesting discoveries. Different linen bandages can be distinguished in the images of different individuals.

Cartonages inside the bandages or outside the mummy can be seen, as in the case of the child whose lower limbs are involved independently. Long spiral stripes spin around the legs suggesting the remains of former badly preserved bandages. Sticks inside the bodies confirm the use during the Roman Period of this kind of trick to fix the carcasses. In the case of the child, a polygonal cross section, varying from triangular to oblong shaped; the radiological density lower inside and denser at the outer cortex, and other characteristics confirm the stick was made of a papyrus stem (Cyperus papyrus) broken or cut at both ends. In the case of Bela, the stick inside the head in made of a thick and fibrous kind of material, with no visible cortex, with a roughly round cross section, suggestive of a cut piece of palm wood.
The presence of artificial eyes of different kinds is also noticed in the CT scanning. The eyes of the child are thin, dense and almond shaped small objects placed in front of the orbits. In Sha-amun-en-su the artificial eyes are round and dense and are filing completely her orbital cavities. All the mummies had body cavities partially or completely fulfilled, in order to preserve their final appearance for eternity.  

Objects identified as amulets were found only in the mummy of the priest of Amon, who still has her sacred scarab and a small pack of other amulets close to her hands. This evidence proves that her body has been preserved and not violated, as well and her coffin has been closed for centuries, even after it was taken out of her tomb. Other data are waiting to be interpreted in an image databank of more than 6.000 frames, and is still growing.
Virtual images and especially 3D technologies have improved Egyptology that is undoubtedly one of the branches of archaeology that obtained more fruitful results from those modern techniques of investigation.  


AUFDERHEIDE, A. C. The scientific study of mummies. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003.
BALOUT, L. La momie de Ramsès II. Paris: Editions Recherche sur les Civilisations – ERC. 1985.
COCKBURN, A.; COCKBURN, E.; REYMAN, T. A. (Eds.). Mummies, disease & ancient cultures. Cambridge – New York: Cambridge University Press, 1998.
DAVID, A. R. (Ed.). Manchester Museum Mummy Project: Multidisciplinary research on ancient egyptian mummified remains. Manchester: The Manchester Museum, 1979.
FLEMING, S.; FISHMAN, B.; O’CONNOR, D.; et al. The Egyptian Mummy: Secrets and Science. Philadelphia: Philadelphia University of Pennsylvania, 1980. (Exhibition, University Museum of the University of Pennsylvania, Sept. 1980 – Aug. 1981)
HARRIS, J. E. An X-Ray atlas of the royal mummies. Chicago – London: The University of Chicago Press, 1980.
RAVEN, M. J.; WYBREN, K. T. Egyptian Mummies: radiological atlas of the collections in the National Museum of Antiquities at Leiden. Turnhout: Brepols Publishers, 2005.

Text adapted from:

BRANCAGLION JR, Antonio. “O Estudo Científico das Múmias Egípcias/ The Scientific Study of the Egyptian Mummies”. In: WERNER, Heron; LOPES, Jorge (Eds.). Tecnologias 3D - Paleontologia, Arqueologia, Medicina Fetal/3D Technologies – Paleontology, Archeology, Foetal Medicine. Rio de Janeiro: Revinter, 2008.

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cogitas3d disse...

Muitíssimo interessante professor. Grato por compartilhar!