Category Archives: Egyptology

The Embalmer’s Fingerprints

Sometime in the winter of  1907 and 1908,  an American researcher found a curious assortment of objects lying in a small pit in the Valley of the Kings. Theodore Davis, like many Egyptologists of the day,  was looking for large, grand things, preferably royal tombs. So when he and his workers dug up several jars filled with linen bandages, worn kerchiefs,  broken pottery,  splintered animal bones, bits of dried mud, and collars made of faded dried flowers,  he immediately set them aside and resumed digging.

Davis thought he had found scraps from a poor man’s grave.  In fact,  he and his team had excavated all the leftovers from Tutankhamun’s  spectacular funeral in 1323 B.C. Read more…

ER, Ancient Egypt Style

I’ve  spent many hours over the past week on a cardiac ward in a large urban hospital, visiting my father who is suffering from heart trouble.  Over the last few days, as he and I have taken to strolling the corridors–he leaning on his walker,  and I beside him–I have begun to notice all the many gifts and tributes that grateful heart patients and their families have left behind  for nurses and doctors on the ward.

I’ve never seen so many tokens of gratitude–large engraved plaques;  framed homemade quilts;  original etchings and paintings;  an inscribed and signed moose antler; and a framed eagle feather. All are intended as permanent testaments,  and seem to bear the same phrase, “with heartfelt thanks,”  a mantra,  it seems,  from those who have survived a near-death experience and whose hearts have been healed.

As I walk these corridors,  my thoughts occasionally wander and I am reminded of similar places in the ancient world.  In the Nile Valley,  ancient Egyptians searched for relief from their ailments in sanatoriums in two major temples.   The first of these was in Dendera.   There, according to Bruno Halioua and Bernard Ziskind’s wonderful book, Medicine in the Days of the Pharoahs,  the ill took medicinal waters in a temple dedicated to Hathor, bathing in a series of stone tanks in hopes of  a cure–an approach favored even today by those visiting traditional spas.

And if the waters at Dendera offered little relief,   Egyptian patients had a second recourse.   They could journey to the great temple in Deir el-Bahri,   dedicated to Imhotep and Amenhotep.  There priests conducted the sick into a dark chapel:  as they waited hopefully,  a god-like voice suddenly boomed,  reassuring them that they would be cured.  In other chambers,  priests induced dream states in their patients,  allowing them to talk directly to the gods and plead their cases.

Did any of this succeed in curing the hopefuls?  Well,  the ancient Egyptians,  too, left permanent tokens of their gratitude.   Along the walls of one shrine, Egyptologists have found inscribed testimonials.  One reads:  “Andromachus, a Macedonian, a laborer, came to the good god Amenhotep; he was sick and the god cured him the same day.”

The nurses and doctors on Ward 2a,  where my father now is,  would recognize the sentiment immediately.

Today’s photo shows the Hathor capitals in the First Hypostyle Hall of Dendera temple. The photo was taken by Jaakko Anttila in  January 2005.

Heart Attacks, Strokes and the Ancient Egyptians

On the weekend,  British researchers  published an intriguing article in Lancet on a group of people whose cravings for fat-saturated junk food led to arteries packed with plaque. The individuals in question weren’t 21st century Brits fatally fond of crisps, chips and deep-fried Mars bars, however.   They were ancient Egyptian priests who had regularly scarfed up left-over cakes and other offerings given by supplicants.

Rosalie David,  an Egyptologist at the University of Manchester and one of the world’s great experts on Egyptian mummies,  headed the team.  She and her colleagues examined  mummies of Egyptian priests and their family members and discovered to their surprise signs of serious heart disease,  including badly clogged and damaged arteries.

Intrigued by this,  David studied inscriptions on Egyptian temples describing the rituals that priests performed and the offerings that supplicants left.  High on the list of the offerings were cooked geese,  whose meat contained up to 60 percent fat, beef,  and an assortment of calorie-laden cakes made of animal fat and oil.

Moreover,  the inscriptions and other texts revealed how priestly foodies  at these temples refused to let all this fat-rich fare go to waste.  After performing rituals with their offerings three times daily,  they gathered up the leftovers and took them home to their families–hardly a heart-smart diet.

David and her colleagues now suggest that this fat-saturated diet and the arterial diseases that resulted could have cut short the  lives of these priests.    Studies of the mummies and other human remains suggest that this group did not often live past the age of 50.

It’s not surprising then that Egyptian physicians were well aware of heart disease, as attested to in the section on cardiovascular disorders in the Ebers papyrus.   Indeed Bruno Halioua and Bernard Ziskind,  the authors of Medicine in the Days of the Pharoahs, marvel at what they call the Egyptians’ “impressive grasp of cardiovascular function.”  As the two authors point out,  the Ebers papyrus even includes a description of  what might well be a heart attack.  An individual, notes the papyrus, “who suffers at the entrance to the inside (ib), when he has pains in his arm, his breast,  and the side of his stomach (ro-ib)” is in dire straits.  “Death is approaching.”

We never think of ancient Egyptians keeling over from heart attacks or strokes.   Those are supposed to be modern diseases,  but it would appear that there really is nothing new under the sun.

Exhuming Ancient Celebrities

I wasn’t planning to post today on Tutankhamun.  Over the past twenty-four hours,  journalists have spilled a cargo tanker’s worth of ink on news that the famous young king suffered from a host of serious ailments.  I thought I would leave the story to the newspapers until I began browsing the coverage.   Some reporters derided the Egyptian king as “malarial and inbred,”  while others took lower aim.  One online rag, for example,   informed readers  that “King Tut was a wreck, but his penis was ‘well-developed’.”

If you ask me,  these exhumations and studies of ancient kings and other celebrities are  becoming media circuses.   All the high-tech poking and prodding quickly strips away the dignity and grandeur of great men and women,  baring their physical  frailties and secrets for all to see.  In recent years,  we’ve been subjected to several of these tawdry sideshows and I suspect there are more to come.  I posted recently on the proposal to exhume Leonardo da Vinci.  And two weeks ago, I spotted an article on a Danish team who will soon exhume a famous 17th century astronomer, Tycho Brahe.

None of the subjects,  I might add,  has given consent for such scientific study.  And I sometimes wonder about the motives of the researchers.  The scientists who propose to exhume Tycho Brahe, for example,  want to determine whether the famous astonomer was murdered or whether he died of natural cause.   This hardly seems reason enough to rifle through a tomb and disturb the sleep of the astonomer.

In future,  I’d like to see researchers and reporters alike treat the ancient dead in the same way we treat the recently deceased–with respect and decorum.   Few of us would consider prying open a recent grave and poring over newly buried remains  just to satisfy a point of  idle curiosity.  So why is it ok to do that to a 17th century astronomer?

When I was writing my book,  The Mummy Congress,  I was really struck by the highly professional way that serious mummy researchers treated the ancient dead. They never made  jokes at the expense of the dead or  talked lightly or unfeelingly about their ailments.  Indeed, during the examinations of the bodies,  they often spoke as if the mummies themselves could hear exactly what was said.

Poor Tutankhamun.  I’m glad he couldn’t hear what people were saying today.

The Sweet Side of Mummification

I started this week railing against a British television producer who is hunting for a terminally ill person to mummify in a new uber-sensational reality-based television show. All week this story has left a really bad taste in my mouth.  To wash it away,  I found a superb short video on mummification that was shot by the J. Paul Getty Museum. The curators based on the video on the techniques used by an Egyptian mortician some 2000 years ago to mummify a young man named Heracletes.   Short, sweet and to the point. And no cashing in on the misery of a terminally ill patient. Bingo.

Egyptian Mummification–On a Reality Show Coming Your Way

What sensational balderdash is this? A British production company is currently looking for a terminally ill person willing to undergo ancient Egyptian mummification. While some people might welcome immortality Tutankhamen-style,  there’s a huge catch.   The whole stomach-churning procedure will be caught on camera and shown later on high-def television across Britain.  Can you imagine watching anything worse on a 54- inch screen?

Steve Connor, a wonderful journalist at the Independent, broke this story a few weeks ago, and ever since fellow science writer Josie Glausiusz emailed me about it, I’ve been fuming.  In the late 1990s,  I flew down to Chile to attend a major conference of the world’s leading experts on mummies,  and later wrote a book about my experiences.   Two of the experts I met there,  Bob Brier, a senior research fellow at Long Island University, and Ron Wade,  director of the State Anatomy Board in Maryland,  had just completed an important project in experimental archaeology.  The two men had managed to mummify a modern human corpse in the lab by using ancient Egyptian methods recorded in early texts.

In other words,  we know exactly how the Egyptians did it.  Science will not  be gaining anything from this program.   And I have to ask myself how many viewers  in their right minds will want to sit down with their kids and watch a real mummification.   The procedure begins,  for example,  by piercing the subject’s cranial vault.  To do this,  the mortician has to thread a metal tool through one of the nostrils and puncture the ethnoid bone that sits between the eye sockets.  Then the mortician has to either draw or pour out the grey viscous brain matter.  And that’s only for starters.   The embalmers–who will not be skilled at this–will also have to haul out fistfuls of intestines and other internal organs by reaching blindly into  a small incision.  Good luck.

I find it hard enough to write about this.  Imagine watching it, particularly after you have gotten to know the terminally ill person in the opening episode.  That’s the particularly twisted part of the producer’s  plan.  He wants viewers to meet the subject as a living person,  so that they will have an “emotional response” during the mummification process.

The ancient Egyptians had far more sense.   Their morticians set up their workshops on the outskirts of towns,   away from prying eyes,  and they tended to guard their trade secrets very carefully.   I think it’s enough to know these secrets today.  I don’t see any reason at all to parade them ghoulishly in front of a sensation-hungry public.

Off with Their Mummified Heads

Why do so many of the world’s major museums hold bizarre collections of mummified body parts from ancient Egypt–a human head here,  for example,  and a withered hand there?   This is not the kind of question that often pops up in casual conversation, even in the circles I run in.   But it came to mind this morning after reading Josie Glausiusz’s excellent review in Nature of  a very cool new exhibit at the Brooklyn Museum.

The museum’s  “Body Parts:  Ancient Egyptian Fragments and Amulets,”  explores artistic body parts from Ancient Egypt–bits and pieces of worked wood,  bronze and obsidian that curator Yekaterina Barbash found tucked away on storage shelves.  And Josie Glausiusz,  a writer whose work I like a lot,  makes several lovely points in the review.  She notes, for example,  that Egyptian artists were very fond of depicting human perfection.  (This is one reason,  I suppose, why we see so many young, slender, beautiful people painted on Egyptian tombs.)  But some artists were not at all shy about depicting human frailties such as dwarfism or scoliolis,  as artifacts in the exhibition demonstrate.

But back to my question about the mummified body parts.   While researching  my book,  The Mummy Congress: Science, Obsession and the Everlasting Dead,  I toured dozens of museums around the world, and was stunned to  learn about  all the disembodied heads,  hands and the like.  The Ashmolean Museum in Oxford,  for example,  owns the head of a woman,  and a hand with a scarab ring.  The Field Museum of Natural History in Chicag0 possesses  five mummy heads.  The Louvre has two heads and a hand.  And on it goes.

So what’s going on?  The answer,  I’m afraid,  relates to an old antiquities trade.  During the nineteenth century, wealthy European tourists clamored to buy Egyptian mummies as souvenirs of their Grand Tours.  Indeed,  few stately homes were complete at the time without a mummy or two propped up in the corridors.   In 1835,  however,  the Egyptian government passed legislation to control the antiquities trade there:  it banned exports of its ancient treasures,  including mummies.

But enterprising and unscrupulous travelers  were not to be denied their souvenirs.  They began to smuggle mummies out–something that proved very tricky.   It was impossible, after all, to cram a whole mummy into the  steamer trunks of the day,  and larger shipping containers attracted too much attention.   So antiquities dealers developed a whole new trade.  They dismembered Egyptian mummies, hewing and chopping off heads,  hands, and feet–the very parts that travellers craved as souvenirs.  Back at home,  many travelers had these mementos  mounted in Victorian glass cases,  a fashionable addition at the time to many a mantel.

Grotesque,  isn’t it?  Particularly when the Egyptians deliberately mummified their dead so that their bodies would be preserved whole and intact for eternity.  I guess they didn’t count on Victorian souvenir hunters.