The Swiss Mummy Project has been reviewing all of the studies performed on mummies in the last three decades and has compiled a wealth of data about how the ancient Egyptians lived and died. They discovered that in addition to bad dental health, the ancients suffered from a wide range of maladies which we normally associate with modern life.
So, what did the mummies have to say about living well?
3000 Mummies Agree: Brush Your Teeth!
The Swiss Mummy Project has found that about eighteen percent of the more than 3,000 mummies they examined lived miserable—and probably shorter—lives due to bad dental health. A big part of the problem was stone-ground flour, which deposited sandy grit in their bread and weakened their tooth enamel. Cavities, abscesses, and periodontal disease conspired against the smiles of royalty and commoners alike (Source: MSNBC: “Bad teeth tormented ancient Egyptians”).
Headed up by Dr. Frank Ruhli of the University of Zurich, The Swiss Mummy Project recently made headlines by mummifying a human leg using what they believe were the same processes used by the ancient embalmers. Basing their work on that of Dr. Bob Brier and Dr. Ronald Wade, who mummified an entire human body in 1994, Dr. Ruhli seeks to apply the most current medical and scientific instruments to the task of prying away the mummies’ secrets. As he explained to Discovery News back in October:
We are trying to improve on that important experiment using the most up-to-date methods, such as radiological technology, magnetic resonance imaging and computer tomography. It’s a unique project, the first of its kind. (Source: Discovery News: “Body Part Mummified With Ancient Egyptian Recipe”)
The project has discovered a variety of ailments that plagued the ancient Egyptians, sometimes literally. Seven of the mummies, for instance, showed signs of having contracted the most deadly species of malaria. Infectious diseases were widespread. But the ancient Egyptians also suffered from problems we normally associate with modernity.
Listen to Your Mummy: Watch Your Fat Intake and Avoid Second Hand Smoke
In a separate study recently conducted by Siemens AG and the Mid-America Heart Institute, CT scans were conducted on 22 mummies from the Museum of Antiquities at Cairo. The heart specialists were surprised to find that atherosclerosis—hardening of the arteries—was observed in more than half of the mummies from which they were able to extract heart and circulatory tissue (Source: Discovery News: “Ancient Mummies Show Signs of Heart Disease”). Dr. Ruhli’s numbers were considerably lower. Out of a sample of 85 mummies, atherosclerosis was only found in four, but the Swiss team found another surprisingly modern problem in the sample.
Eleven cases exhibited signs of pulmonary diseases such as emphysema. The source of their breathing problems: air pollution. “Interestingly, most pulmonary affections were related to the presence of anthracotic pigment [carbon] in the lungs,” Dr. Ruhli said. “This suggests air pollution by smoke from fires or oil lamps” (Source).
Bone trauma was also very common, the Swiss team discovered. Specific examples include a fracture to the left middle finger of Ramesses II and axe and spear wounds to Tao II’s skull, one of the few cases where a very likely cause of death was determined. For the most part, it was impossible to determine a cause of death because of the process of mummification itself.
Mummy’s Parting Wisdom: Die Young and Leave an Attractive Corpse
Although Dr. Ruhli’s team was able to conclude that most of the mummies died between the ages of 20 and 40, the very process that preserved their bodies in such an uncorrupted state also destroyed much of the evidence. As forensic anthropologist Gino Fornaciari put it:
The lack of information about the cause of death in Egyptian mummies can be explained by the embalming process itself, which removed the internal organs. Many diseases involving those organs could not be easily diagnosed. (Source)
The study conducted by Siemens AG and the Mid-America Heart Institute ran into similar problems. While they could find evidence of heart disease, they were unable to distinguish what role weight may have played in the cause of death (source). Want to shed a lot of weight in a relatively short period of time? Try packing yourself in 600lbs of natron for 30-40 days. There is no accurate way to estimate how much a mummified person may have weighed while alive.
The Swiss Mummy Project’s work is on-going. In addition to understanding the process of mummification and exploring the health problems of the ancient Egyptians, Dr. Ruhli hopes to arrive at a better understanding of disease in order to improve the quality of life for modern humanity. The Mummy Project is also developing forensic tools and software which may have applications for the living. After all, part of what we are seeking when we explore the ancients is a better understanding of ourselves.
- Families and Frailties of the Eighteenth Dynasty
- The Mummies Gallery
- King Tut’s Feet Fatale: Did Frail Feet Fell the Famous Pharaoh?
- King Tut’s Death: Solved, Resolved, or Just Restated?
- The Swiss Mummy Project Wraps Up Current Experiment
- Zahi Hawass to Announce Results of DNA Tests this Fall
Copyright by Keith Payne, 2009. All rights reserved.
Photos “PN200805-02,” “PN200805-05,” and “PN200805-07” are Siemens press pictures and are provided courtesy of Siemens AG in accordance with this press copyright agreement; all rights reserved. Photo “Mummy-UpperClassEgyptianMale-SaitePeriod RosicrucianMuseum” by Keith Schengili-Roberts is used in accordance with this Creative Commons Attribution ShareAlike 2.5 license. Photos “Mummy Rosicrucian Egyptian Museum” courtesy of Henry W. Schmitt, and “Sequenre tao” courtesy of G. Elliot Smith, are in the public domain.