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How medical technology reveals the secrets of ancient Egyptian mummies

Media make images of the Egyptian mummy Nestawedjat, which dates to approximately 700 BC, at a press preview at the Museum of Fine Arts Wednesday, August 28, 2019 in Montreal. The museum will be showing the exhibition Egyptian Mummies: Exploring Ancient Lives this fall and winter. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Ryan Remiorz

MONTREAL — Nestawedjat, a wealthy, married “lady of the house,” died in the ancient Egyptian city of Thebes sometime around 700 BC.

Some 2,700 years too late to save her, she was brought to a British hospital to undergo a thoroughly modern medical procedure: a CT scan.

In recent years, medical technology has allowed researchers to learn intimate details of the lives of ancient Egyptian mummies that go far beyond the biographical details gleaned from their tombs.

Nestawedjat, for example, likely died between the ages of 35 and 49, her teeth probably hurt and she had lesions on her spine that are often associated with athletes or the elderly — even though she died at what would be a considered a young age by today’s standards.

On Wednesday, Nestawedjat’s remains sat under a spotlight on a table at the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts — one of six mummies that will be on display beginning next month as part of the British Museum’s exhibit, “Egyptian Mummies: Exploring Ancient Lives” that has previously toured Hong Kong, Australia and Taiwan.

Reporters and photographers panned cameras over her body, perfectly bound in linen without a single loose edge or fray, as nearby glass cases displayed the jars that would have contained her organs and two of the three ornately painted wooden coffins that were nested one inside the other, like Russian dolls, with her body at the centre.

Thanks to CT scans, and occasionally large-animal veterinary equipment for the bigger pieces, researchers have been able to glean information on the mummies’ medical status, diets, and burial rites without unwrapping — and risking destroying — the fragile remains, according to Caroline Barton, the assistant collection manager in the British Museum’s Egypt and Sudan department.

“We have found we can penetrate quite deeply into the human remains, and virtually peel back the mummification layers, the resin layers, the skin layers, the musculature,” she said Wednesday in Montreal, where she’s helping prepare the upcoming exhibit.

Nestawedjat’s scan, for example, revealed her heart is still present in her body. It also showed the amulets placed on her body as part of the burial ritual that saw her eviscerated, salted, anointed with oils and filled with packing materials.

Barton said technology is also partly responsible for the exhibit being in Montreal at all. While some of the artifacts would have been considered too fragile to transport just a decade ago, new and better packing techniques have given the museum staff the confidence to send them around the world.

Barton, an expert “mummy packer,” oversaw this process herself, using custom cut polyethylene soft foam and a support fabric called a bondina to ensure the precious cargo wouldn’t be damaged by a bumpy air and road journey.

“We have to very sympathetically think about where the pressure points will be, what can break and what can’t,” she explained.

Laura Vigo, the curator of the Montreal presentation of the exhibit, said she hopes that by exposing the intimate secrets of the mummies — such as the fact that one likely died of sepsis from a tooth infection, while another likely had clogged arteries — the public will feel close enough to “hear their voices.”

“We have for centuries, for millennia, been infatuated with the idea of the Egyptian mummy,” she said. The exhibit, which runs from Sept. 14 to Feb. 2, 2020, offers a chance “to really understand how they lived, not just the mummy, but as persons.”

Morgan Lowrie, The Canadian Press