6.2 Mummies; Mummies and Disease in Egypt

I. EGYPT AND MUMMIES

The lives of ancient Egyptians were shaped by the environment around them, both for good and for bad. The land, the river and the climate were a great benefit to the people, but in some circumstances, that environment contributed to disease.

Egypt has a remarkable landscape. On either side of the Nile River run relatively narrow strips of land which provided the fertile fields for growing crops. Annually the seasonal flood deposited rich alluvial soils. The Nile River was described by the Arab traveler Ibn Battuta, who said that it 'surpasses all the rivers in sweetness of taste, in length of course and utility.' Egypt, 'the gift of the Nile' was an optimistic civilization. When the Nile flooded, the ancients would say that 'the fields laugh, men's faces light up, and God rejoices in his heart.' Egypt has also left us time travelers: its mummies. The arid climate and religious necessity for preservation have given us a remarkable glimpse at the health of its people.

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We associate mummies with Egypt; however, in recent times the term mummy has been extended to cover all well preserved dead bodies found anywhere in the world. The majority of these are found in dry places such as the sands of deserts or dry caves where desiccation has taken place rapidly. Occasionally bodies are found preserved in other ways. Well known mummies are known from Peru, China, Siberia and even Nevada. The 'Iceman' comes from the Alps.

Ancient Egyptians made mummification by artifice into big business for religious reasons: the spirit of a person could continue only if the body was preserved. The basic process of mummification, whether naturally or intentionally, is to remove water rapidly from the tissues. In Egypt, conditions were ideal: a dry climate and a naturally occurring salt called natron.

Egyptian embalmers used the natron supplemented with oils, resins, and bitumen. (My comment: The Greek traveler and 'father of history' Herodotus reported the Egyptian mummification process in detail.)

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II. THE ORIGIN OF THE TERM MUMMY

The origin of the term 'mummy' comes to us from medieval medical practice. You will find it strange. Mummy comes from the Persian word mummeia. It means 'pitch' or 'asphalt,' which was naturally occurring crude oil that oozed to the surface. Mummeia was a prized medicine in Europe, but was in limited supply.

In time, clever business entrepreneur took resin from mummies and sold it as mummeia. It wasn't long until entire mummies, including dried bones and flesh were ground up and peddled it as medicine also. Soon the term mummy was extended to the lot. Would you try it yourself?

If you find all of this bizarre, there is more to be told. The export of mummies became big business in the fifteenth century with their export for medicinal purposes. More were taken for European museum collections. Many ended up in private collections or the dusty basements of universities. In the nineteenth century, Canadian paper manufacturers imported mummies to use the linen wrappings to make high quality rag paper; the fate of the bodies is not known. Mark Twain reported the use of mummies for fuel in the steam engines of the Egyptian railways.

(My note: outright theft and pillage of Egyptian antiquities continued into the nineteenth century. Today it is just about impossible to remove an antiquity from Egypt legally. Many years ago, the Egyptian Museum authorities shrewdly sold many excess museum antiquities to other museums around the world. It resulted in much scholarly activity--and interests in Egyptian tourism.) Mummies are the most popular part of Egyptian exhibits in museums.

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III. DISEASES IN ANCIENT EGYPT

Health, disease, and culture are studied in medical anthropology both from a comparative and historical perspective. Mummies and the diseases they reveal offer insight into the past; they are time travelers from another age. Diagnosis via paleopathology is difficult; however, considerable success has been achieved in uncovering afflictions from the past. Infectious, congenital, neoplastic (cancer), and traumatic conditions are all present in abundance.

Ancient embalmers removed the internal organs and stored them separately in vessels called canopic jars--often items of fine art in themselves. The brain reportedly was removed by a metal hook inserted up through the nose. The function of the brain was not understood. DNA has been discovered, but only in small fragments, Do NOT expect Jurassic Park style cloning!

How are dry and brittle soft tissues studied microscopically? Sir Armond Ruffer opened the way by developing 'Ruffer's solution' which is alcohol and 5% bicarbonate of soda. It softens the tissue sufficiently for sectioning and microscopy. Techniques of mummy study include autopsy, X-Ray, Xeroradiography, CT scanning, scanning electron microscopy, endoscopy, and the newest darling of biochemistry--DNA study. Here is a short list of the findings.

(1) Congenital Disorders. Egypt is a major source of skeletal evidence for achondroplasia. One poignant specimen is an achondroplastic woman with her undeliverable fetus; in our day, a Caesarean section is necessary for a live birth. Two embalmed fetuses were recovered from Tutankhamun's tomb in 1926. One had a congenital defect--spinal bifida. Whether they were children of his wife Ankhesenamun is unknown. Club foot, cleft palate, and hydrocephalus have also been found.

(2) Acquired Disorders. Ancient Egypt gives us some of the earliest evidence for tuberculosis from the ancient world. There are several related types of the tubercle bacilli. The bovine and human strain is what threatened the health of the ancient Egyptians. It is extremely contagious. Overcrowding in many households provided the ideal conditions for the spread of disease. Tuberculosis is believed to have been acquired by humans from livestock.

Leprosy (Hansen's disease) is caused by a bacillus closely related to tuberculosis. The organism attacks specific areas of the body. Characteristic symptoms are mutilated hands and feet with the fingers and toes reduced to stumps. Few disease have produced such prejudice and cruelty; this affliction is often cited in the Bible. Experts say that transmission is difficult.

Schistosomiasis (a future profile in this course) is a parasitic disease that is a scourge in modern day Egypt. It is evident in mummies from ancient Egypt. The parasite is small and was not recognized until 1851. It is likely that the Egyptians never identified it. Smallpox, a viral disease believed to have come from domesticated cattle, has been confirmed from skin lesions in mummies. The most famous of these is Pharaoh Rameses V.

Poliomyelitis is suspected in a few mummies. One of the most common diseases found in ancient bones is arthritis. Joint diseases are a group of abnormalities. The cause of some of them is unknown. As people age so their bodies deteriorate and eventually the bodily systems break down. Osteoarthritis affect the synovial joints such as the knee and are acquired through advancing age or stress. As the joint is continually used, the cartilage wears away leaving bones rubbing together without any cushioning between them. Under this stress, the bone ends develop 'lipping' at the edges.

The osteoarthritic changes in joints give some insight into the occupations of the sufferers. Viziers and scribes sat cross-legged. Agricultural workers were continually bending and lifting. Studies in modern people show that boney outgrowths from the spine appear in most people by the fifth decade of life; by age ninety almost everyone has them.

Evidence of traumatic injury is abundant in the form of head injuries believed to be from blunt objects. Fractures of the radius and ulna (forearm) approach 50% in some populations.

Trephination has not been confirmed in ancient Egypt. Deliberate shaping of the skull during infancy has been found, but it is rare. We have a future unit on trephination.

There is little evidence for tumors, possibly because the life span in that time was so short. There are no known examples of breast cancer.

Blood vessels are well preserved in mummies and they provide accurate evidence of vascular disease. Diseases of the aorta and coronary arteries, with arteriosclerosis of the kidney and heart blood vessels tell us that the stresses of modern day highly civilized life are not the sole causes of degenerative vascular diseases. They are known from ancient Egypt.

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IV. DENTAL HEALTH IN ANCIENT EGYPT

Teeth are the hardest and the most indestructible of human tissues. Their shape is determined genetically, and in their calcification, they record important nutritional information. Wear patterns and dental caries ('cavities') tell much about ancient living and eating habits.

In ancient Egypt, the greatest single problem was attrition (wear). The teeth were rapidly worn down throughout life by the consumption of a course diet. This is true of both pharaohs and common farmers. In time, the wear becomes so extensive that the enamel and dentin are worn away, exposing the pulp. Painful chronic infection is the result. Dental surgeons of that time would drain the abscesses through a hollow reed.

The second greatest problem of both ancient and modern Egyptians is periodontal (gum) disease. Calculus (tartar) deposits on teeth were often so extensive that they held the teeth in place after death for 2,000 years. The result of these deposits is early bone loss, loose teeth, infection, and tooth loss.

Dental caries (cavities were far less frequently seen amongst ancient Egyptians and Nubians than in today's populations. We can cite two reasons. First, rapid wear literally wore away the sites of pit and fissure cavities. Second, is the absence the of refined carbohydrates.

Some orthodontic observations are of interest here. Ancient Egyptians and Nubians rarely had the dental crowding and abnormal molar relationships that are observed in Western cultures today. Many anthropologists and some dentists tell us that vigorous chewing encourages development of robust, full sized lower jaws and some degree of tooth wear minimized joint pain and tooth crowding that are prevalent today.

Some restorative dentistry from that period has been seen. In one mummy with missing teeth, three substitute teeth were in place skillfully threaded together to the abutment teeth with fine gold wire.

Why so much dental wear? Sand infiltrated their diet, especially by way of corn ground bread. Modern experiments have shown that a single grinding of corn produces a course flour. The more desired finely ground flour is produced by adding sand to the course flour which exacerbates the tooth wear process.

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V. Aleutian and Alaskan Mummies

Mummies from Alaska are unique: the frigid climate of Alaska proper has resulted in the production of frozen mummies with remarkable detail. One of the findings is the art of tattooing, a skill highly developed by many aboriginal peoples worldwide. Amongst contemporary Eskimo of the area, an outline is traced first on the skin. The pigment is made of the soot of seal oil lamps which is taken from the bottom of tea kettles or similar vessels used to boil meat and food over an open flame. The soot is mixed with urine, usually that of an older woman. It is introduced into the skin by drawing a piece of sinew soaked in the prepared pigment through the skin with a steel needle. It is pushed through to a depth of 1/32 of an inch. In pre-contact times, a bone needle would have been used--a far more painful implement.

The 1600 year old woman studied here--certainly far removed from the stresses of modern technological society suffered from coronary artery disease. She also showed anthracosis, reflecting a long life exposed to the local air pollution caused by seal blubber lamps. This case confirms the antiquity of coronary atherosclerosis and exhibits an occurrence of this disease in a preliterate society. One other comment: this mummy, as with many, has red blood cells surviving that can be tested for blood type. It was 'O'.

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VI. THE INUIT MUMMIES FROM QILAKITSOQ (Greenland)

These mummies include eight Eskimo of the Thule culture found in 1972. They date from 1475. Low temperature and lack of moisture mummified them so well that they survived, with their clothing, almost unchanged. Faces and garments are beautifully preserved.

They are visually haunting to the modern observer. One infant was a Downs syndrome. That person may have died by intentional exposure. One 50 year-old woman showed evidence of malnutrition as a child; she had also lost her front teeth probably from a life of chewing skins. She also had an extensive cancer behind her left eye. Soot in the lungs reveal a life with seal blubber lamps. None had tuberculosis, a scourge of recent native Greenlanders. Adults had tattoos, done in great detail. Food in the intestine reveal hair from seals, deer and arctic hair. There were also pollen and head lice. Hair analysis shows low levels of mercury and lead. Both of these metals show up in modern Greenlanders.

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VII. MUMMIES OF PERU

Mummification, either intentional or accidental dates back to the fifth millennium BC. Religious, cult, and magical motives are all suggested as reasons for intentional Peruvian mummification. Analysis suggests that tuberculosis was present even before the time of Columbus. The source of TB--be it animals or even of Viking origin in AD 1000 is unknown. Hookworm, a parasite has been confirmed from prehistoric times. (My comment: intestinal parasites are very old in evolution. One cynic has said that 'when the first intestinal gut evolved, a parasite was waiting to invade it!')

All blood group types have been found amongst the mummies in Peru. One other frequent finding is trepanation, the ancient practice of making holes in the cranium. Healing reveals that many survived the operation. We have a separate unit on this ancient surgical practice later in this course.

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VIII. BOG BODIES OF BRITAIN AND DENMARK

These folks date from the Iron Age in Northern Europe, many dating from around the time of Christ. They are remarkable for how they died. Many seem to have met a violent death. Lindow Man from England had been struck from behind on the head with an axe, struck in the back with such force that one of the ribs was broken, and then unconscious but still alive, he was garrotted with a cord tied around his neck. The dead man then had his throat slit, before his body was dropped face down into a pool in the bog. Other bog bodies show a similar end.

Many of the bog bodies have smooth un calloused hands and carefully rounded fingernails, suggesting that they were people of high class who were not involved in manual work. The stomach contents of the bog people suggest that they died in either winter or early spring. The Roman historian Tacitus records the sacrificial practices of the Northern tribes of Europe. The Iron Age was a time when the gods were appeased by making sacrifices in the watery bogs. The acidic anaerobic bog environment preserved these specimens as time travelers.

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IX. THE FRANKLIN EXPEDITION

You may have seen an excellent program on public television about the Franklin Expedition. Sir John Franklin with two ships and a crew of 129 set sail in 1845 to find the elusive Northwest

Passage. By 1848, the last of them died after abandoning their ship.

Burials of those who died on King William Island have been located and meticulously exhumed. The immediate cause of death was tuberculosis and pneumonia. The contributing factor, however, was lead poisoning verified by hair and bone analysis. A huge rubbish heap of 8,000 tin cans sealed with tin/lead solder was testimony to a mental breakdown caused by toxic lead in their diet.

..... CJ'99

(My note: there are several interesting videos on the various mummies described in this unit. We associate 'mummies' with the ancient past. The Franklin Expedition dates from recent historic times; however, the surviving bodies in the frozen North are legitimate mummies.)

Resources

Aufderheide, A., and Rodriguez-Martin, C. Cambridge Encyclopedia of Human Paleopathology New York: Cambridge University jPress, 1998.

Bahn, P. ed. Tombs, Graves and Mummies. New York: Barnes & Noble Books, 1996.

Brier, B. Egyptian Mummies. New York: Quill William Morrow, 1994.

Burenhult, G. ed. People of the Stone Age. New York: American Museum of Natural History/HarperCollins, 1993.

Cockburn and Cockburn, eds. Mummies, Diseases and Ancient Cultures. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1995.

Filer, J. Egyptian Bookshelf Disease. London: British Museum Press, 1995.

Hansen, Meldgaard & Nordquist 'The Mummies of Qilakitsoq' National Geographic. Feb, 1985, pp 191-207.

Maples, W. Dead Men Do Tell Tales. New York: Doubleday, 1994.

Roberts, C. and Manchester, K. The Archaeology of Disease Ithica: Cornell University Press, 1995

"Tales of the Bog Mumies" Discover. August, 1997 pp 60-67.

"The Bog People" Archaeology. July/August, 1997 pp 62-67.