Mummies go to the doctor

May 10, 1996

Egyptology, once seen as an arts subject, has turned to science to unlock the mysteries of mummies.

Most academic departments still teach Egyptology as a history or language option. But Manchester University has harnessed medical, biomedical and historical expertise to solve the problem of how to study mummified remains without destroying them in the process.

Rosalie David, head of the Manchester centre for biomedical studies and forensic studies in Egyptology, says that mummies fascinate scientists and Egyptologists not only because they can answer questions about life in the ancient world but because they are works of art. Until now, undertaking any detailed analysis of the remains has resulted in their destruction.

Instead of unwrapping and conducting autopsies on the mummies, the Manchester research is perfecting a technique using industrial endoscopes. These are inserted deep in the tissue of the mummies to produce biopsies for analysis. The mummified tissue is then rehydrated so that a piece of 4,000-year-old lung tissue closely resembles a similar sample today.

Medics play a key role in Dr David's research. "In order to really understand the lifestyles of Egyptian civilisations we need to construct multi-disciplinary teams not only to develop scientific techniques of analysis but also to understand the diet, funerary beliefs and diseases which dominated at the time," she says.

Thanks to a recent Leverhulme Trust award Dr David will be focusing her work on the 5,000-year history of a parasitic disease known as schistosomiasis or bilharziasis. The disease affects 200-300 million people worldwide today. Data from the mummies will be used to make comparisons with cases today and work out epidemiological patterns.

Better methods of prevention, diagnosis and treatment can hopefully then be developed to help today's sufferers.

Manchester University has one of the largest collections of mummies in the world, second in Britain only to the British Museum. Many were collected by a wealthy textile merchant in the 19th century and the earliest examples date back to 1900bc. A complete tomb group and numerous tiny animal remains are among the collection. Earlier this year a Scottish family donated a mummy kept in the attic for years.

Dr David's team's reputation has spread. She and her team were recently invited to examine mummified remains at other centres in Britain and abroad, notably for the University of Cairo and Macquarie University of Australia at their excavations in Egypt.

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