Medicine and Mysteries: Case Studies in Mummy Forensics

   Posted by: Keith Payne   

Categories: Mummies

Medicine and Mysteries is a sneak preview of the much larger mummies section coming to Em Hotep.  The format of the mummies section will be to present introductory summaries of relevant topics followed by video clips, followed by links to primary and secondary resources.

In this installment:  The search for Nefertiti, mummies and heart disease, was Tut murdered, mummies and dental care, ancient brain surgery, tracking Lady Tahat and sexing Lady Hor..  Much more..


The Search for Nefertiti

Nefertiti has been the subject of controversy ever since the New Kingdom Period, and as befits an arch-diva, she remains the source of heated contention today.  Did she reign for a season as the shadowy Pharaoh Smenkhkare following Akhenaten’s death?  Should her famous bust be returned to Egypt?  Ask these questions in the right crowd and prepare for fisticuffs!  Well, maybe it isn’t that bad, but one subject that did draw some heat for a while was whether or not the anonymous mummy known only as KV35YL—the Younger Lady—could be the remains of Nefertiti.

Tomb KV35—the tomb of Amenhotep II—was discovered in 1898.  The Eighteenth Dynasty tomb had been used in later years as a repository for royal mummies that had been relocated due to the looting of their own tombs.  Along with an impressive list of fellow Eighteenth Dynasty royals, tucked away in a side chamber were two unidentified female mummies, dubbed the Elder Lady (KV35EL) and Younger Lady (KV35YL).  Rumors almost immediately began circulating that one of the two must be Nefertiti.

KV35YL - the "Younger Lady"

KV35YL - the "Younger Lady"

The most popular claims were based on unaided forensic observations (just using your eyes and expertise).  Her head still bears the impression of a headband, which is consistent with the style of headdress worn by Nefertiti and other Eighteenth Dynasty royal women.  Her double-pierced ears are likewise a sign of royalty.  Even more intriguing is a broken-off arm nearby, attributed to KV35YL, which was preserved in a clutching position, as if she held a scepter of office when embalmed.

All of these observations, despite being circumstantial, are valid methods in mummy forensics.  It would certainly seem that the tragically damaged mummy of KV35 Younger Lady was a royal princess, possibly a King’s Great Wife, but can we say she was Nefertiti?  Follow the story and see where more advanced mummy forensics takes us. 


Searching for Nefertiti—Mummies in KV35 are CT scanned to see if one is Nefertiti (no date).



Tracking Nefertiti by Maryalice Yekutchik (Discovery Channel)

Having recently accumulated firsthand scientific data to add to the corroborative evidence that she painstakingly mounted over the years, Joann Fletcher has broken her cryptic silence. She declares that the unwrapped, shaven-headed mummy in KV35 is indeed most likely to be Nefertiti, the stunningly beautiful and powerful 3,400-year-old royal who likely reigned as pharaoh after serving as queen, and whose death and final resting place were ages-old mysteries.


Where’s Nefertiti?  By Mark Rose (Archaeology, September 16, 2004)

Mark Rose critiques Joann Fletcher’s work, and resultant book, regarding her search for Nefertiti and conclusion that she is one of the mummies from KV35.


Nefertiti—Will the Real Mummy Please Stand Up? By James M. Deem (Mummy Tombs)

Could the missing mummy of Nefertiti actually have been discovered a century ago and simply misidentified? A team of British researchers led by Egyptologist Joanne Fletcher conducted a 12-year search for the mummy. In 2003, they claimed that they had identified the missing Queen’s mummy as one discovered in a cache of mummies uncovered in 1898. Case closed? Not quite.


Press Release:  CT Scans of Egyptian Mummies from the Valley of the Kings

One of the most intriguing mummies from the Valley of Kings is the “Younger Lady” from KV35. She has recently, and unconvincingly, been identified as Akhenaten’s chief queen Nefertiti, renowned as one of the great beauties of the ancient world. Traditional scholarship has already successfully debunked this speculative assumption; the latest CT-scan confirms that this identification is indeed highly unlikely.



Mummies and Heart Disease—Evidence of a “Modern” Affliction

Did the ancient Egyptians suffer from hardening of the arteries?  Mummy forensics says the prognosis is critical—heart disease was fairly common, at least among royalty.  But this result came as a surprise to cardiologists, and led to a reexamination of their assumptions about what causes this not-so-modern killer.

Dr. Greg Thomas, Clinical Professor of Cardiology at the University of California, Irvine, started with a problematic observation about what we thought we knew about heart disease.  Conventional wisdom said that heart disease was a modern affliction caused by a lifestyle of bad habits, a high-fat diet, and a sedentary lifestyle.  And yet, in his own practice Dr. Thomas knew of people who led healthy lifestyles and yet developed heart disease nonetheless. 

Dr. Thomas wondered if another variable was causing the problem, unrelated to lifestyle.   He decided that one way to find out was to study a group of subjects who didn’t smoke, avoided fast food, and lived active lifestyles, or at least they did thousands of years ago—ancient Egyptian mummies.  Dr. Thomas’ patients who developed heart disease despite healthy habits suggested that lifestyle was not the only, or even a necessary, cause of heart disease.  If ancient Egyptians, who had none of our modern risk factors, also suffered from heart disease, then this would be further evidence that something besides the modern lifestyle was at work.

The Horus Study Group was thus formed to seek answers to these questions.  An international team of heart specialists and Egyptologists, the Horus Study Group’s goal was to conduct CT scans on 20 royal mummies from the Egyptian Museum at Cairo, looking for signs of heart disease.  The cardiologists were skeptical.  They did not expect to find evidence of arteriosclerosis, the hardening of the arteries associated with modern heart disease. 

At first, the CT scans seemed to confirm their suspicions.  Initial analysis of the results failed to turn up the tell-tale calcium deposits that indicate arteriosclerosis.  But as they had more time to delve into the results, the Horus Group researchers began to see patterns emerge that were missed on the first sweep.  Not only did many of the mummies have atherosclerosis (hardening of the arteries exacerbated by plaque buildup), in some instances the condition was advanced. 

In this study, mummy forensics taught us something about a condition that we considered a modern affliction.  We found that not only is heart disease as old as civilization itself, we learned that while lifestyle might contribute to, or even cause heart disease, something else (such as genetics) is involved. 

Of course, the mummies in this study group came from a privileged class, where lifestyle factors such as a high-fat diet and a less physically active regimen, cannot be ruled out as contributing factors.  While the Horus Study opened new ways of looking at what turns out to be an old disease, further work is required for a more solid conclusion.


Egyptian Mummies Unwrap Secrets of Medical Mystery—The Horus Study Group is an international team of Cardiologists and Egyptologists who are determined to learn more about modern medicine by unwrapping secrets found in Egyptian mummies.  This clip is an introduction to their work.  (March 30, 2011).


Heart Disease Found in Egyptian Mummies—It turns out heart disease has been a problem for thousands of years. Recently researchers took a closer look at a 3,500-year-old mummy and found out this Egyptian princess along with more than a dozen other mummies suffered from a buildup of plaque in the arteries (April 11, 2009).



Heart Disease Found in Egyptian Mummies by staff (Science Daily, November 17, 2009)

Hardening of the arteries has been detected in Egyptian mummies, some as old as 3,500 years, suggesting that the factors causing heart attack and stroke are not only modern ones; they afflicted ancient people, too.


Mummy Scans Show Heart Disease was Rampant by Laura Sanders (Wired/Science News, November 18, 2009)

Among 22 mummies who received full-body computed tomography scans, 16 had hearts or arteries preserved enough to study. Of those, nine had evidence of blockage from atherosclerosis.


The Mummy Study Returns by Tom Vasich (University of California, Irvine/University Communications, April, 2011)

While the American and Egyptian researchers first identified atherosclerosis in a smaller 2009 mummy study, this effort involved whole-body CT scans on 52 mummies housed in Cairo’s Museum of Egyptian Antiquities. Of the 44 with identifiable arteries or hearts, 45 percent had calcifications either in the wall of an artery or along the course of an artery highly suggestive of atherosclerosis.


Egyptian Mummy’s Curse:  Oldest Heart Disease Case by Stephanie Pappas (Live Science, May 17, 2011)

An ancient Egyptian princess would have needed bypass surgery if she’d lived today, according to researchers who examined the mummy and found blocked arteries in her heart in what’s now the oldest case of human heart disease.


Egyptian Princess Mummy Had Oldest Known Heart Disease by James Owen (National Geographic News, April 15, 2011)

An ancient Egyptian princess might have been able to postpone her mummification if she had cut the calories and exercised more, medical experts say.  Known as Ahmose Meryet Amon, the princess lived some 3,500 years ago and died in her 40s.


Egyptian Princess Needed Bypass Surgery, Mummy Study Shows by staff (History in the Headlines/History Channel, May 18, 2011)

The daughter of Pharaoh Seqenenre Tao II and the brother of Pharaoh Kamose, the Egyptian princess Ahmose-Meryet-Amun lived in Thebes—now Luxor—between 1540 and 1550 B.C. When she died in her 40s, the royal mummy-to-be may have been suffering from heart disease so severe that today’s doctors would have performed bypass surgery. Her mummy was examined during a larger study that shed new light on the history of the heart condition known as atherosclerosis, suggesting that the disease may have been around much longer than previously thought.



Was King Tut Murdered?

Poor Tut inherited a mess.  His father, Akhenaten, had turned Egyptian political and religious life on its head, establishing the reclusive and elitist New World Order at Amarna.  Now, with the collapse of the Amarna court and the rush to restore the old government and religious institutions, Tut seems to have been wedged into a power vacuum as little more than a placeholder. 

Tutankhamun was surrounded by envious enemies and potential plotters from the outset.  Indeed, his two closest confidants, Ay and Horemheb, were each waiting for their own turn on the throne.  To the aging vizier Ay, the nine-year-old king was a serious long-term cramp in his personal ambitions.  Horemheb, commander of Egypt’s armies and Tut’s official heir, would have likewise seen the young king as an unpredictable variable susceptible to Ay’s manipulations at court while the general was away fighting battles.

And then there were the grudges.  Tutankhamun’s father had stripped the Amun priesthood of all power and authority.  Of course, Akhenaten had inflicted this humiliation on all of Egypt’s established religions, but the Eighteenth Dynasty had a special relationship with Amun, who was seen as their deliverer from the Hyksos.  The New Kingdom arguably owed its establishment to the covenant between Ahmose I, Amun, and the institution of the religion of Amun.  Tutankhamun’s father had spat upon that arrangement. 

Of course, Tutankhamun was the public face of the reversal of Akhenaten’s policies, but for some people this may have been too little too late.  Some high-ranking government officials, powerful clergy, and wealthy nobles had lost virtually everything in the restructuring of Egyptian society based at Amarna.  Many people just a few years older than Tut had seen their families disenfranchised and their inheritances swept away, and it is not difficult to envision machinations of revenge.

So what is the evidence for regicide?  Are there alternative explanations?  If King Tut wasn’t murdered, why did he die so young?  In the case of Tutankhamun’s death, mummy forensics led to suspicion when a potentially lethal wound was discovered at the back of his head, and then eventually led to an explanation for this and other wounds, and a deeper understanding of the process of royal mummification during the New Kingdom Period.  As for what did kill him, do your own analysis of the following sources and reach your own conclusion.  There are still several to choose from!


Mummy Forensics:  Was Tutankhamun Murdered?—Mummy forensics turned up a possible cause of death for Tutankhamun, one which may have been purposely inflicted.  But on reexamination, the process of mummification itself may explain the hole in Tut’s head.


Who Killed King Tut?  (King Tut Website)

A review of the theories and possible suspects regarding Tutankhamun’s death.


Was Tutankhamun Murdered?  By Jenny Hill (Ancient Egypt Online)

Unfortunately, Howard Carter and his team were not particularly careful with the body of Tutankhamun when they investigated his tomb. They were more interested in removing the jewellery and amulets that were placed within the mummy wrappings than in preserving his body for posterity and in their haste they caused a huge amount of damage. Since then Tutankhamun’s mummy has been X-rayed three times (in 1968, 1978 and in 2005) but these scans have been unable to confirm beyond a reasonable doubt, the cause of his death.


Was Tutankhamun Murdered?  By Kate Ravilious (The Guardian, November 18, 2004)

The scan provides information about the density of all parts of the mummy, ranging from the wrappings to the skin and bone. “The scan will give a clear view of any bones that are not in the correct position and any signs of injury,” says John Taylor, an Egyptologist at the British Museum, who has carried out CAT scans on about 20 mummies.


King Tut Not Murdered Violently, CT Scans Show by Brian Handwerk (National Geographic News, March 8, 2005)

Detailed CT scans of King Tutankhamun’s mummy found no physical evidence of murder, Egypt’s Supreme Council of Antiquities announced today. But the scans did reveal unusual features, including a broken leg, which some experts think may have led to the boy king’s death.


King Tut Felled by Malaria, Bone Disease by Rosella Lorenzi (Discovery News, February 16, 2010)

King Tutankhamun was most likely the child of the “heretic” pharaoh Akhenaten..and was afflicted by several diseases, including malaria, according to a major genetic investigation into the boy king’s family.  “We have found so many curious conditions and pathologies in King Tut that it is really a problem to define what killed him,” author Carsten Pusch at the Institute of Human Genetics of Tubingen University, Germany, told Discovery News.


King Tut Died From Broken Leg, Not Murder, Scientists Say by Stefan Lovgren (National Geographic News, December 1, 2006)

A CT scan of King Tutankhamun’s mummy has disproved a popular theory that the Egyptian pharaoh was murdered by a blow to the head more than 3,300 years ago. Instead the most likely explanation for the boy king’s death at 19 is a thigh fracture that became infected and ultimately fatal, according to an international team of scientists.


A 3,000-Year-Old Mystery is finally solved:  Tutankhamun Died in a Hunting Accident by Steve Connor (The Independent, October 22, 2007)

The mystery behind the sudden death of Tutankhamun, the boy king who ruled Egypt more than 3,000 years ago, may have been finally solved by scientists who believe that he fell from a fast-moving chariot while out hunting in the desert.


Tut:  Disease and DNA News by Mark Rose (Archaeology, February 16, 2010)

News reports are coming out today about Tut, malaria, and his family DNA. Here’s a quick take based on an early cut of the Discovery documentary and the Journal of the American Medical Association press release.




Lady Tahat—Musical Mummies or a Matched Wrap?

The Carlos Museum at Emory University has received a female mummy in a coffin that identifies her as Tanakhtnettahat (Lady Tahat for short), a Chantress of Amun.  But sometimes less reputable antiquities dealers stick unidentified mummies into empty coffins to increase their value.  How can we be sure the mummy is really that of Lady Tahat?

Mummy forensics draws on specialists from a wide range of disciplines.  Can a textiles specialist match the mummy to the coffin?


How Mummy Identification Works—Narrated by Bob Brier, this clip from the Discovery Channel describes how specialists sought to verify the identity of a mummy by matching it to its coffin.  The coffin belonged to Lady Tahat (Tanakhtnettahat), a Chantress of Amun, but does its current occupant belong there?  A scrap of wrappings, presumably from the original owner, is stuck to the bottom of the coffin.  Does it match the wrappings of the mummy currently within? (No date).


Coffin and Coffin Board of Tanakhtnettahat (Carlos Museum/Emory University)

This exquisite coffin belonged to the Lady Tahat, a chantress in the temple of the god Amun at Karnak. Such women were usually of high rank, as this unusually fine coffin indicates.



The Gender-Bending Case of “Lady” Hor

On June 23, 2009, a team from the Brooklyn Museum transported four mummies to North Shore University Hospital for CT scans.  Two of the mummies were from the Roman Period, including Pasebakhaemipet, a former mayor of Thebes, and two were female mummies from the Twenty-Second Dynasty, named Lady Hor and Thothirdes.  Or so the researchers thought.

The researchers were looking for the typical sorts of things CT scans tell us about mummies—verification of sex, diagnoses of any potential health issues, and a determination of the cause of death, if possible.  The study also sought to compare how the process of mummification differed from period to period and between different social classes.

Both Lady Hor and Thothirdes showed signs of receiving lower-quality mummifications than the Roman-era mummies, evidenced in part by the fact that both women were missing their hearts.  The heart is left intact with higher-quality mummifications.  But the researchers were even more surprised by what was not missing!  Both Lady Hor and Thothirdes were men, not women!

Taking the example of “Lady” Hor, this study shows the advantages of being able to look “under the wrappings” with x-rays and CT scans.  Hor, which incidentally is a masculine name—a pretty good clue!—was originally assumed to be female based on the portrait on his sarcophagus, which depicted a beardless face with delicate features.  Most Egyptian men from this period wore beards, so the researchers who made the original determination assumed that Hor was female.  It was only after looking under the wrappings with CT scanning that the truth was discovered.


Under the Wrappings:  The “Lady” Hor—Video from the Brooklyn Museum describing the CT scan that revealed Lady Hor to be Sir Hor instead.  We learn about the difficulties of transporting the mummies from the Brooklyn Museum to North Shore University Hospital, along with an explanation by Dr. Edward Bleiberg  of the misdiagnosis and subsequent proper diagnosis of Hor’s sex (April 1, 2010).

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Scan Reveals Mummy is Male—An Associated Press clip on the CT scan and diagnosis of Hor.  Commentary with Dr. Edward Bleiberg of the Brooklyn Museum and Dr. Jesse Chusid of North Shore University Hospital in this gender-bending discovery made possible by CT scan (June 24, 2009).

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Unwrapping Brooklyn’s Mummies: Interview with Edward Bleiberg (Archaeology, July 23, 2009)

Dr. Edward Bleiberg discusses the Brooklyn Museum’s fascinating mummies and their CT scans with Archaeology‘s Morgan Moroney. He describes what has been learned so far and the future plans for the scans, while emphasizing the importance of non-intrusive mummy unwrappings, the open exchange of scholars, excavating in museum storerooms, and public outreach.  Dr. Bleiberg also discusses the study that revealed Hor’s gender.


Report on the Mummies’ Trip to the Hospital by Vincent Brown (Talking Pyramids, June 24, 2009)

Vincent Brown’s live coverage via social media of the Brooklyn Museum mummies’ trip to the CT scanner at North Shore University Hospital.


Hey, That Mummy is a Daddy by Erik Badia (Newsday, June 23, 2009)

Egyptologists from the Brooklyn Museum and doctors from North Shore University Hospital learned Tuesday through a CT scan that a 2,500-year-old mummy previously thought to be a woman – and named Lady Hor – actually was a man. Dr. Jesse Chusid said that while the mummy’s body wrap of linen covered in plaster, called cartonage, bore the shape of a woman, the body within had the anatomy of a man. When Lady Hor’s image appeared on the screen, “we knew almost immediately that it was not a woman,” Chusid said.



Mery—Four out of Five Mummies Agree:  Brush Your Teeth

Mery (“beloved”) is the name given to an anonymous female mummy acquired by the Walters Art Museum of Baltimore in 1941.  Although her real name is unknown, we know that she lived in Thebes around 850-750 BC, came from a middle class professional family, and lived to between 50-60 years of age.  We also know that her final years would have been miserable.

Mery’s teeth were in terrible condition at the time of her death.  Of 28 remaining teeth, half were abscessed and her gums show signs of infection.  Her problem wasn’t cavities—her teeth were too worn and broken for many cavities to form.  At any given time, several of Mery’s teeth would have been throbbing with pain.  Her abscesses were so severe that her cause of death was likely septicemia, blood poisoning from her infected teeth and gums.  But her condition was not so unusual. 

At least after death, teeth are the most durable part of the human body, surviving even better than bones.  Orthodontic studies of mummies can tell us about their diet and lifestyle, and blood preserved in the pulp can provide DNA, so a good dental checkup is one of the first steps in a forensic mummy study.  But the most comprehensive study of mummy teeth came in 2009, when the Swiss Mummy Project did a massive forensic study of the dental records of over 3,000 mummies that had been analyzed over the previous 30 years. 

X-ray of Hatshepsut's teeth show Mery was not alone in her misery

The Swiss study concluded that 18% of the mummies had problems that would send even the most squeamish of us running to the dentist.  Necrotizing periodontal disease, infected cysts leaking toxins into the bloodstream, tooth and bone degeneration leaving nerves exposed, constant dull ache punctuated by moments of intense explosive pain…  Mery and the unlucky 18% experienced this and more.  But the ancient Egyptians had a diet fairly low in sugar, so why were bad teeth so prevalent?

The main culprit was the sand that surrounded them, which found its way into everything, including their food.  Bread was a staple of the ancient Egyptian diet, and bread required stone-milled flour.  When grain was tossed on the grinding stone there would inevitably be a small amount of sand that would also be pulverized into the flour.  Over the course of a lifetime this fine silicon abrasive slowly wore away at the teeth’s enamel and dentin.

Mummy forensics has also revealed signs of ancient Egyptian dentistry.  For the worst abscesses, hollow reeds would be used to lance and drain the gums.  Mery herself shows signs of an attempt to fill one of her teeth, probably with a resin mixture.  Unfortunately, Novocain was still a few millennia away.


The Walters Mummy Gets a Checkup—In spring 2008, the University of Maryland and the Walters Art Museum performed a CT scan on Mery, a female mummy from the museum, to conduct a “virtual autopsy” discovering more about the person’s age, possible illnesses and cause of death. She most likely died of blood poisoning from severe dental abscesses.

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Mummified:  The Walters Art Museum Mummy Gets Scanned (Walters Art Museum)

The Walters Art Museum webpage concerning the “virtual autopsy” of Mery.


Bad Teeth Tormented Ancient Egyptians by Rosella Lorenzi (Discovery News, December 3, 2009)

Worn teeth, periodontal diseases, abscesses and cavities tormented the ancient Egyptians, according to the first systematic review of all studies performed on Egyptian mummies in the past 30 years.


Don’t Fear the Mummy?  Fear Her Dentist by Karl Hille (The Washington Examiner, November 27, 2008)

Judging by the state of Mery the mummy’s teeth, dental hygiene likely wasn’t a top priority 2,800 years ago, and it may even have been the cause of her demise.  Deep abscesses, broken teeth and intensely infected gums filled Mery’s mouth, leading researchers to believe she died from blood poisoning stemming from multiple infections.




Head Check No. 1: The Mystery of Tomb 10A

The head sat atop the sarcophagus as if to greet them—pleased to meet you, won’t you guess my name?

In 1915 a tomb was excavated by a joint Harvard University/Museum of Fine Arts Boston expedition working in the necropolis of Deir el-Bersha.  Labeled 10A, this was the tomb of Djehutynakht and his unnamed wife.  Djehutynakht was a local governor and priest from the Middle Kingdom Period, and his tomb goods, despite the shinier stuff having been looting ages ago, show that Djehutynakht and his wife enjoyed a life of refinement.  He left behind a huge cache of delicately executed funerary models, and his coffin may be one of the best examples from the Middle Kingdom Period.

The mystery revolves around a head found resting on Djehutynakht’s coffin.  Tomb robbers destroyed the mummies of Djehutynakht and his wife looking for the valuable amulets and jewelry that would have been included in their wrappings.  When the spoilers had finished, the remains of both mummies lay scattered about the tomb, with the head perched atop Djehutynakht’s coffin like a macabre signature to their deed.

So who does the head belong to?  Djehutynakht?  His wife?  Mummy forensics has its limits.


Can Modern Science Solve an Ancient Mystery?  The Secrets of Tomb 10A—Clip from the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.  Four thousand years ago, an Egyptian dignitary and his wife were interred in a tomb on top of a rugged cliff. When excavators from the MFA opened the tomb in 1915, tomb robbers had already ransacked it. Amid the disarray, a severed mummy’s head was found. Was it the governor (Djehutynakht) or his wife? What could it teach us about mummification practices?  Scientists at Massachusetts General Hospital studied the mummy’s head to find clues.

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The Secrets of Tomb 10A:  The Mummy (Museum of Fine Arts, Boston)

Scientists from Massachusetts General Hospital examined the head using medical imaging techniques. This revealed dramatic new information about Egyptian mummification practices; for example, this mummy is one of the earliest to show evidence that embalmers removed the brain through the nose, a process that later became common.


Exhibition at Museum of Fine Arts, Boston to Unlock the Secrets of Tomb 10A: Egypt 2000 BC by staff (Artdaily.org, September 3, 2009)

This find represents the largest Middle Kingdom burial assemblage ever discovered and sheds light on the grand lifestyle enjoyed by local governor and priest Djehutynakht and his wife, Lady Djehutynakht. The conservation and reconstruction of many of the items—damaged by grave robbers in antiquity—have taken almost a century to complete. For the first time since they were placed in the tomb, the assemblage will be displayed in its entirety.


The Tomb of Djehutynakht by Tim Reid (The Egyptians, October 17, 2009)

I have long been fascinated by tomb 10a at el Bersha, the tombs occupant a Governor was buried in what may be the finest surviving coffin of the middle kingdom, his wife in the tomb next to him and what might be the largest collection of funerary models ever found in Egypt.




Head Check No. 2:  Djed-Hor and Ancient Brain Surgery

In the days leading up to the procedure, the priest Djed-Hor was much given to fits of screaming. 

Who knows how it began?  A slip down the temple stairs ending with a nasty bump to the head?  A sucker punch from a drunken parishioner?  A beer jug thrown by an angry Mrs. Djed-Hor, no longer buying the “But I’m a priest of the fertility god!” excuse for that unfamiliar perfume on his vestments?  Somehow, Djed-Hor took a vicious knock to the eye that broke bone and seems to have led to a very bad infection that spread to his brain.  The result was a pressure inside his skull that was so dreadfully painful that his fellow priests resorted to a drastic measure—brain surgery.

Djed-Hor was a priest of Min who lived at Akhmim, a prominent town sacred to that deity, around 2,600 years ago.  His mummy was found during excavations of a cemetery to the east of Akhmim which began in 1884 and continued for over a decade, uncovering thousands of mummies that have since made their way into museums all over the world.  Djed-Hor’s head found its way to the Milwaukee Public Museum where mummy forensics revealed evidence that he had possibly been subjected to trepanation, a procedure where a hole is made in the skull to relieve pressure on the brain.

So was it successful?  Dr. Carter Lupton, Head of Anthropology and History at the Milwaukee Public Museum, and Dr. Jonathan Elias, his research partner, decided to learn what they could.  When Djed-Hor’s skull was originally scanned back in 1986, researchers did not have sufficient computer power to generate the sort of 3D images and virtual fly-throughs that we have today.  As part of the Akhmim Mummy Studies Consortium, Dr.s Lupton and Elias revisited Djed-Hor’s head.  If they could find evidence that the hole had begun to heal, then the Good Priest may have lived to scream for a few weeks longer.


Mummy Mystery—A collaboration between the Milwaukee Public Museum and GE Healthcare to scan three mummies from Egypt and Peru reveals evidence of ancient brain surgery (April 20, 2011)


Museum Mummies to get CT Scan by staff (Associate Press/WTMJ)

An Egyptian man may have survived brain surgery around 600 B.C. and the Milwaukee Public Museum wants to find out for sure.  Officials there plan to do computerized tomography, or CT scans, on three mummies on Tuesday. The Egyptian man may have had a procedure called trepanation — which involves scraping or drilling into the skull to possibly relieve pressure on the brain — and survived for at least a short time.


Scanning Mummies:  GE Healthcare Unlocks Secrets of the Past by staff (GE Reports, April 19, 2011)

One of the Egyptian mummies, named Djed-Hor, was first scanned in 1986. Then again in 2006, another scan using better technology revealed a silver dollar-sized hole in his skull, leading the anthropologists to conclude he had undergone a primitive form of brain surgery. Now they hope 3D imaging can confirm a new theory that Djed-Hor survived the horrific procedure, and even lived for a time afterwards.


CT Scans Help Unravel Mummy Mystery by staff (GE Healthcare, April 20, 2011)

One of the museum’s mummies, a 2,600 year old named Djed-Hor from the Akhmim region in Egypt, appears to have had a precise section of his skull removed through trepanation – an ancient, rudimentary procedure designed to relieve pressure from the brain.




Incredible Journey:  Identifying of the Mummy of Ramesses I

It all started with a lost goat.

One bright day in the mid-1800’s a man named Abd el-Rassul was searching for his wayward goat near the ancient site of Deir el-Bahri, the location of Hatshepsut’s remarkable temple Djeser-Djeseru (“Holy of the Holies”), near modern-day Luxor.  Abd found his goat bleating up to him from what turned out to be the shaft of a tomb—and Abd’s meal ticket for the next few years.

This was no ordinary tomb.  Abd and his goat had stumbled upon a cache of noble and royal mummies, forty in all, dating from the New Kingdom and Third Intermediate Periods.  They had been relocated to this central cache—one of two—during the Twenty-First Dynasty in an effort to restore mummies whose tombs had been robbed.  Now they were here, along with what remained of their funeral goods and treasures, before a wide-eyed Abd el-Rassul and his lucky goat.  Or at least that is the story.

This could have been a great moment for Egyptology, as it eventually would prove to be, but to Abd el-Rassul antiquities were only worth what someone was willing to pay in cash.  Calling the Egyptian government to report the discovery would pay him little, if anything.  But a treasure trove like this could be parceled out and sold on the black market as needed, which is exactly what Abd and his brothers did, at least until the authorities caught onto their game. 

Abd el-Rassul (in white on the left) with Gaston Maspero (on right, reclining) at the entrance to DB320

Abd el-Rassul (in white on the left) with Gaston Maspero (on right, reclining) at the entrance to DB320

The el-Rassul brothers had a pretty good run while it lasted, pawning small items like amulets and shabtis to collectors.  But when the tomb was fully excavated and catalogued in 1881, it seemed that some of the el-Rassuls’ scores were bigger than what could fit into a rucksack. 

Cataloging the site is standard to all archeological digs, and is of extra importance in mummy forensics because this is usually where you begin to get an idea of whose mummy you have found.  Sometimes this is as easy as reading the name on the walls, but in a situation like the cache at Deir el-Bahri (now officially called DB320, or alternately TT320), where scores of mummies have been relocated, knowing what artifacts were found in the proximity of which mummies might be the only clue to who is who.  But in DB320, the team working the site was intrigued by what mummy was not found with a particular artifact.  

When the mummies had been relocated the priests in charge made lists of who had been interred in which cache.  The list for DB320 included Pharaoh Ramesses I, and sure enough, a coffin bearing his name was found within the site.  But the coffin was empty, and none of the other mummies in the cache could be attributed to Ramesses I.  At some point between the Twenty-First Dynasty and the 1881 inventory, the mummy of Ramesses I had gone missing.  Could the Rassul brothers have actually sold the mummy of Pharaoh Ramesses I?

Enter Thomas Barnett, Niagara Falls’ answer to P. T. Barnum.  Barnett had opened a gallery of curiosities that was part museum and part carnival sideshow, the Niagara Falls Museum and Daredevil Hall of Fame.  While obviously having an element of kitsch, Barnett seems to have made a serious attempt to blend local history, world culture, and shock value into something akin to an educational experience.  It was in this spirit that, between 1857 and 1861 he dispatched his son, Sidney, on three separate expeditions to Egypt to acquire Egyptian… stuff.

No Egyptian Wing is complete without a mummy, and in 1860 a member of Sidney Barnett’s party, James Douglas, acquired a mummy for the Niagara Falls Museum for a grand total of seven pounds.  Barnett’s party was known to have purchased artifacts from a dealer named Mustapha Aga Ayat, who was known to have done business with Abd el-Rassul.  The year—1860—is a good match.  When DB320 was “officially” discovered in 1881 the going story was that it had actually been discovered in the 1860’s.  Did the mummy Ayat sold to Douglas come from Abd el-Rassul?  Could it have been Ramesses I? 

Was seven pounds a king’s ransom?  Again, we turn to mummy forensics. 

First there is the simple unaided visual analysis.  Although far from scientific, anyone can see that the mummy bears a very strong resemblance to the mummies of Ramesses I’s son and grandson, Seti I and Ramesses II.  The trained eye of an Egyptologist can ascertain other details that may not be as obvious.  In the 1980’s Dr. Arne Eggebrecht noted that the mummy’s posture was appropriate for a royal man from the time of Ramesses I.  The positioning of the arms crossed over the chest, with the right hand on top, does not appear until the New Kingdom, and is exclusive to royal males.

Other signs pointed to a royal embalmment.  Although not confirmed beyond unaided observation, the mystery mummy’s fingernails appear to have been painted with henna, an indicator of high status.  The toes appear to have been individually wrapped, which also indicates a pricy mummification.  The mummy’s left hand appears to have once clutched something, such as a scepter.  The mummy was definitely looking like royalty.

The opportunity for more comprehensive forensic analysis came in 1999, when the Niagara Falls Museum permanently closed its doors and the Egyptian collection, mummy included, was acquired by Dr. Peter Lacovara for the Carlos Museum at Emory University.  Dr. Lacovara was also intrigued by the possibility that the Niagara Falls mummy could be Pharaoh Ramesses I, so he decided to take forensics to the next level.  In March, 2000, the mummy had its day with the CT scanner at Emory University Hospital.

The CT scan of the mystery mummy shows that the internal organs were expertly removed and replaced with rolls of linen. Solidified resin (see arrow) finishes the picture of an Eighteenth Dynasty royal mummification (Courtesy of RadioGraphics)

The CT scan added further weight to the theory that the mystery mummy was a New Kingdom royal male, and thus likely the missing Ramesses I.  The embalming incision (the cut from which the body’s entrails were removed) was expertly done and consistent with New Kingdom practices.  The scan also revealed that expert care was given to assuring the mummy’s heart was left in place and the brain properly removed, both indicators of high-quality mummification.  X-ray analysis of bone degeneration in the mummy’s spine suggests an age of at least 45 at the time of death. 

It seems very likely that the mystery mummy from the Niagara Falls Museum and Daredevil Hall of Fame could be that of Ramesses I.  Further analysis, such as genetic testing, could close this case for good.


The Mummy Who Would be King: NOVA/PBS—The unusual search for Ramesses I, from the holy site of Deir el-Bahri to the Niagara Falls Museum and Daredevil Hall of Fame to the Carlos Museum (January 23, 2010).


The Mummy Who Would Be King (Nova/PBS)

The companion website to the Nova documentary.


Ramesses I: The Search for the Lost Pharaoh (Michael C. Carlos Museum/Emory University)

Official website dedicated to the history of Pharaoh Ramesses I, how his mummy came to the Carlos Museum, and how he was identified.


The Mystery Mummy by Mark Rose (Archaeology, March/April 2003)

If this is a royal mummy, how can we identify which pharaoh it is? Scholars are debating the evidence from a close examination of the mummy and the mummification techniques used on it; from accounts of the mid-nineteenth-century antiquities trade in Luxor and the discovery of a royal mummy cache at Deir el-Bahri; and modern scientific techniques including X-ray images, CAT scans, and facial profiling.


U.S. Museum to Return Ramesses I Mummy to Egypt by Hillary Mayell (National Geographic News, April 30, 2003)

The royal mummy and four fragments are part of a 145-piece collection of mummies, coffins, and artifacts the Carlos museum purchased in 1999 from a tacky museum in Niagara Falls that also featured a “Freaks of Nature” exhibit.



Copyright by Keith Payne, 2011.  All rights reserved.

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This entry was posted on Sunday, October 16th, 2011 at 8:16 pm and is filed under Mummies. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.

4 comments so far

Jean-Pierre Houdin

Hi Keith,

What a file…Congratulation for this amazing work !
Shemsu Sesen strikes back..and strong !!!


October 17th, 2011 at 10:29 am

Hi Jean-Pierre,

Thank you so much! And there is more to come. As I put the mummy section together I will be premiering chunks of it as articles. In the end, all of these mummy articles will be put into a sort of compendium arranged more like traditional webpage format, with connecting links.

Obviously I am not releasing these in order, I am writing the ones that are more fun and interesting first. Next, look for an article on forensic facial reconstructions. I guess I could have started with a list of mummy terms and such, but where is the fun in that? 😉

In between sections of the mummy emporium (hey, I haven’t named the mummies section yet, how about Mummy Emporium? Too much like Mummy Mart?) I will be posting other articles, just some catching up to do. Not to mention other projects still in the works, such as Project Khufu!!


October 18th, 2011 at 9:53 am

Aren’t the photos of Ramesses II and Seti I transposed?

January 30th, 2015 at 1:53 pm

Hi Donna 🙂

You are absolutely correct – the photos of Ramessess II and Seti I are transposed. I don;t know how I missed that, but very good catch!

Thank you so much for pointing that out. I will put fixing this on my rather long list of things to do to get the website caught up. It has languished for a while, but a new burst of productivity is on the way.

Thank you again for your keen eye!


April 8th, 2015 at 11:28 am

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