by Dan Vergano USA TODAY
Mummy myths and modern science battle it out in today's studies of the ancient dead of the Kingdom on the Nile.
Mummies and myths go together, with a touch of ghoulish interest in ancient tombs for added interest, but modern science is shedding a little light on some of our more musty ideas about ancient Egypt's dead.
Even as modern-day Egypt seethes with political turmoil, scholarship into the mortuary practices of that ancient land is enjoying a renaissance.
"Mummification went on in Egypt for more than 3,000 years, and the practice changed at different times and places," says anthropologist Andrew Wade of Canada's University of Western Ontario. "In the past, we would look at one or two mummies and make conclusions, but now we have a lot more non-destructive technology and medical information we can bring to bear on them."
In an upcoming Journal of Archaeological Science analysis, Wade and his colleague Andrew Nelson look at radiological scans of 84 ancient mummies from museums worldwide. Their goal: seeking to prove or disprove some of the hoariest (and creepiest), accounts of ancient mummification. Among those ideas was the notion that embalmers removed the brains of dead rulers through the nose and that the practice was limited to royalty and their loyal followers. Another is that the internal organs of the wealthy were removed from mummies. The study and a series of related reports show all of those ideas, long staples of scary mummy stories good for grossing out schoolkids and adults, look a little more complicated when viewed under the X-ray.
Blame some of the confusion on the ancient Greek historian Herodotus, who first filed his accounts of how embalmers preserved the dead along the Nile around 440 B.C. He recounted a description of mummification practices in his historical accounts of a visit to Thebes in Egypt, of which he wrote, "There is no country that possesses so many wonders, nor any that has such a number of works which defy description." Still, he tried, describing brain and abdominal surgeries to remove organs as part of mummification for the wealthy. A cheap chemical dissolution of the innards was reserved for the poor, who were buried without being wrapped in the linen used to make a classic mummy.
"Instead, it appears by King Tut's time that almost anyone can afford being mummified," Wade says, based on the ages of the mummies in the study. That pharaoh, Tutankhamen, died around 1323 B.C., long before Herodotus. "After that time we see a mortuary arms race, where practices once reserved for the elite spread to commoners."
So, sometimes things went as Herodutus described for Egypt's rulers. Consider a priest named Nesperennub, investigated by the British Museum using high-tech computed tomography scans. The scan found his brain neatly removed through his nose and his organs, such as his lungs, stored in nearby jars. (Of course a pot was apparently glued to the back of his head by accident.)
But other times, mummification didn't always follow that script. Sometimes lungs or other organs were left inside mummies. Wade finds evidence that mummies only sometimes had their brains removed. And sometimes that removal came through a hole where the spine meets the skull, not the left nostril. Embalmers sometimes filled the emptied skull with resin, where the study notes, "the golden color of the liquid resin may have had strong connections to the sun and divinity." It was an extra, a frill sometimes added to mummification, apparently.The brain wasn't a particularly well-regarded organ at the time among the Egyptians. Other morticians instead packed the noggin with linens, as much as 60 yards worth of stuffing for one skull, showing practices varied widely among mummification shops.
The study also doesn't find any evidence for what Herodotus described as the cheapest mummification technique, using cedar oil to dissolve the insides of mummies. The stuff was likely too expensive for such use. Instead, it appears that turpentine was used to embalm sacred animals in Thebes, where cults that worshiped bulls might mummify a sacred animal perhaps twice every generation. That would explain "archaeological finds of large enema rigs unattested to for humans," as the study says. Herodotus likely confused the animal-preservation method with one for people.
One elite practice that seemingly didn't spread to commoners involved the heart. The heart was the central organ, the seat of consciousness and morality, in the mythology of the ancient Egyptians, Wade says, so its treatment was particularly important. "The whole point was to have an enjoyable afterlife, and you would definitely want your heart for that," Wade says, if you were mummified.
But, the analysis shows "an overwhelming absence of the heart in eviscerated Egyptian mummies," suggesting that its retention may have remained a secret privilege of the elite. A rule from an ancient Egyptian "Book of the Dead," for example, warns embalmers against spilling secrets of this nature. "The commoners having their hearts removed may simply have not known that they were to be spiritually hobbled to ensure for the elite a favored position" in the afterlife, says the study.Scarab jewelry was instead commonly packed over the heart for most mummies.
Mummies offer insights into modern maladies, not just ancient days, serving as labs for comparison of how people lived in pre-industrial times. A March study of mummies in The Lancet showed that hardening of the arteries is an ancient disease, not just an ailment of today's less labor-intensive lifestyle. A 2010 study of King Tut found the famed boy king was likely felled by a broken leg and malaria, showing the antiquity of the still-deadly disease.
"Herodotus got some things right and some things wrong, but we are lucky we have his accounts at all," Wade says. "The mummification craft was kept within families controlled by guilds that kept hold of secrets, so we should appreciate any insight from those times that we can find."