|Me 'helping' the mummy transportation to the hospital to be scanned|
Having been at the KNH Centre, Manchester, UK, studying Biomedical and Forensic Techniques for Egyptology gave me a different perspective on how and why we should care for ancient human remains. Besides the usual curiosity people have everywhere for ‘mummies’ and the fascination for Egyptian tombs and mysteries, there is a real aspect to what they can give us in return.
A brief deconstruction: from the time of death of a human to the finding of human remains, all forensic techniques apply, but common sense has recently turned into professional behaviour and techniques, allied to ethics when dealing with human bodies.
For centuries, travellers to Egypt associated mummies with medicines as explained below. Since Napoleon’s Expedition more and more mummies were brought from Egypt, carelessly, by anyone of means, to serve both as a souvenir and a curiosity to display publicly. Since remote times the Egyptian government offered items of its heritage or sold them on the international market. Only after the end of the Second World War, several international conventions (UNESCO) have been enacted to combat the theft, illicit exportation and trafficking of cultural property as well as promote the restitution of objects to their countries of origin.
Convention on the Means of Prohibiting and Preventing the Illicit Import, Export and Transfer of Ownership of Cultural Property (UNESCO 1970)
Convention Concerning the Protection of the World Cultural and Natural Heritage (UNESCO 1972)
Egypt issued Law 117/1983 making museums and other institutions housing mummies start to worry about their conservation and display for public. According to this law, all antiquities in Egypt are the property of the state and their unlawful removal from the country subsequent to that date is theft. I learned from an Egyptian scientist working in a Cairo research facility that there is a warehouse somewhere in Cairo that is filled with body parts, complete bodies, heads, and the authorities don’t even allow scientists to take anything from there. If you are to study one of those, it has to be by picture. Come on...One thing is to smuggle them out of Egypt; another is to be able to study them!
What happens to human remains before their excavation from the burial site?
To have a preliminary and optimal possible diagnosis in paleopathology it is advisable to perform an analysis of the remains in situ, before any type of removal from its archaeological context. Changes might also have occurred post-mortem and those have to be recorded. Also the body position and surrounding medium may alter human tissues and what we find is not what it was deposited there anymore...
The deterioration of human remains starts prior to the excavation at the burial site; it is necessary to follow forensic osteological procedures whether these human remains are skeletized or mummified. Deterioration conditions can damage the bodies beyond restoration and that excludes the possibility of future sample retrieval.
There are also possibilities of damage by careless excavation procedures at the site, such as the mishandling of the artefacts or rodent attack. Some inept conservation attempts also damage the mummies and skeletons, since every body is an archive of information that has to be preserved as so, as little as possible should be put inside a mummy, and a record of all steps must be made and updated.
In handling mummies we should never forget that, as Dr. Anthony David, an expert on human remains' conservation says, human bodies are an excellent source of information, both medical and cultural; we can have an idea of how ancient peoples lived, ate and socially interacted just by studying their physical remains.
|Neferinpu, Czech mission|
What are mummified human remains? What is a mummy?
Depending on the conditions of the soil, humidity, air ventilation, heat, animal action, human intervention, and natural disasters, there can be several types of state in which the human remains can be found. Mummies are nothing more than mummified tissue, which is desiccated tissue.
The word mummia, according to Abdel Latif, an Arab doctor of the 13th century, who travelled to Egypt, originated from a substance flowing from a Persian mountains’ top, mingling with waters that carried it down, and coagulated like mineral pitch, but the term continued to be used on preserved bodies such as the mummies from ancient Egypt. In Latin, (mumia), means to lie down in aromatic resins, one of the last stages of mummification procedures, loaned from the Arabic mūmiyyah, مومية, which means also bitumen.
From the 12th century onwards, travellers going to Persia spoke about mummies with miraculous properties, healing wounds instantly and mending broken bones. When Persian travellers went to Egypt and saw the mummified bodies covered by a black substance similar to mummia, they misinterpreted it and mummia became the name for the body covering and the body itself. Then, a real ‘hunt for Egyptian mummies’ began. The highest selling point in History would have been in the middle Ages and again in the 17th and 18th centuries. Many boticaries diluted this substance in wine, honey or water. In some cases the substance was not powdered, but as pieces of the body or in a paste.
Many Egyptian mummies have already disappeared from the face of the Earth due to this practice. Even kings thought they would become more ‘royal’ when ingesting mummy powder. The French king Francis I (1515-1547), took a dose of mummy mixed with dried rhubarb daily and kept a small packet with him (amulet?), to stay strong and deter assassins. King Charles II (1630-1685), rubbed ground up mummy powder on his skin as he believed this would turn him into a ‘Pharaoh’.
Make mummy of my flesh and sell me to the apothecaries.
James Shirley (1596-1666), Bird in a Cage
Mummy powder, have you taken your daily dosage?
The word , scH, meant mummy in ancient Egyptian, but also bitumen or «bitumen material», as an allusion to the black colour of the Egyptian mummified bodies when unwrapped.
A surgeon from Bretagne, Ambrósio Paré (1510-1590), was one of the first to criticize this medicine. His critic was based upon what was told to him by Gui de la Fontaine, doctor of the king from Navarra. He would have travelled in 1564 to Alexandria. There he knew about a Jew who dealt in mummies and this one confessed that the bodies were not older than four years.
In 1658, Sir Thomas Browne, a philosopher, referred to mummy powder as: «mummy is become merchandise, mizraim cures wounds and pharaoh is sold for balsama» and maybe before the 12th century, doctors prescribed this medicine to their patients.
The work Rates for the Custom House in London mentions «crushed mummy»; and in 1657 the work The Physical Dictionary contained the definition: «Mummy, something like resin that is sold in boticaries; some say it is extracted from ancient tombs». In Spain, Benito Jerónimo Feijoo (1676-1764), a Benedictine monk, Professor of Theology and Sacred Scriptures, a big defender of ascetic medicine, was a big critic of mummy powder.
The physician John Hall é is referenced as having used this «medicine» in two of his patients:
"Mummy was included in the London Pharmacopoeia of 1618. It was said to pierce all parts, restore wasted limbs, cure consumptions and ulcers, hinder blood coagulation and stop fluxes. A shortage of the genuine article resulted in recipes for making artificial mummy from the newly dead".
Already in the 19th century, travellers to the Middle East record the use of mummia by Arabs, mixed with butter and called mantey. Thought to be a remedy for ulcers and also present in the Italian pharmacopeia of that time.
French doctors boiled mummies and skimmed the oil risen on top for another medicine and thinking about prices, supplies must have been plentiful, so, cheap, such as a record from the 1800’s by a Scot noting that the rate was about 8 shillings a pound of mummy powder.
|Asru covered, Manchester Museum, May 2008|
At the museum; home sweet home?
In the museum environment the way human remains are displayed or stored is affected by inadequate humidity, the level of air and movement, light, fungal spores, insects, all these can further damage the mummies.
The storage of human/animal remains has to obey certain requisites regarding temperature control, accommodation of complete bodies and body parts alone. They cannot be stored like any other artefact.
Housing mummies in tropical climates requires special attention; the hot and wet weather accelerates their decomposition.
Physical damage to mummies by careless handling and rodent attack can be done also in storage.
When we find physical damage to human remains, intentionally or not, it destroys any chance for research for any tests, it will be inconclusive, since contamination issues are undoubtly present and therefore all action must be taken in situ and after storage/display.
Some inept conservation attempts like the deposition of copper salts in aqueous solutions on the mummies’ skin or smoke-curing in antiquity or in present times also damage the human remains.
The best environment for keeping mummified remains is a relative humidity of around 40-45% and a constant temperature of 25-28C.
The e-voucher: a digital representation of a specimen
Dr. Angelique Corthals, a world specialist on aDNA retrieval and analysis, has come up with an idea that should be widely used. Thinking that, whenever possible, the specimen records must be linked to digital images connecting sequence data and visual identity, museums should be at the forefront of preserving molecular information, as, if a vouchered sample of the original DNA is kept, it will allow the reproducibility of results, being also a back-up sample.
Keeping the mummies clean...and visible...the ethics again
The repairing, cleaning and displaying of mummies have also options that better preserve our specimens. But that is very technical for me. More and more technology allows us to choose how to better preserve our ‘jewels’, it is just a matter of deciding that human bodies are as important as gold or precious stones or even more.
But we should never forget that we are dealing with human bodies and, although they are ancient, decayed, dried out and quiet, they all were the envelope of somebody’s soul one day...
In Manchester, UK (2008) there was a big poll both online and at the museum so people could give their insights and then the museum would decide whether displaying a ‘naked’ Asru or not. I had the opportunity to follow this closely and the former Museum Egyptian Collections’ Curator, Dr. Karen Exell was very positive about the outcome.
Now Asru is even a star for a German documentary shown already on TV but also available online
I read many of the cards left by people at the Museum and those who were more impressive were the children’s. They all want the mummies to be as visible as possible, as the mummies are the main purpose and interest they have when visiting a museum which has them. Several years ago another UK museums did these type of referendum as to human bodies should be widely displayed and visible to all publics or not.
I believe truly that these negative opinions towards hiding human bodies must have come to someone who is a religious orthodox of any faith.
The ICOM states the code of ethics for museums in general and in particular for human remains, we can read in point 3.7 (see also points 2.5 and 4.3): “Human Remains and Material of Sacred Significance, Research on human remains and materials of sacred significance must be accomplished in a manner consistent with professional standards and take into account the interests and beliefs of the community, ethnic or religious groups from whom the objects originated, where these are known. “
Adequate conservation of human remains and the appropriate techniques has been the object of several presentations by specialists in some of previous Mummy Congresses, a meeting happening every four years. We can conclude that ethics and technology may go hand in hand to achieve a perfect preservation of our past, both as cultural artefacts remaining from vanished important cultures but also as a reliable source of information for human evolution, and the evolution of diseases.