Don't Smash the Mummies

February 2, 2011

Brit Trogen


If you find yourself rioting in Egypt in the near future, allow me to make a suggestion: please don't smash the mummies. First, you run the risk of unleashing an evil curse that will haunt you for centuries. But more importantly, you're robbing the scientific community of an incredibly important resource. 


Mummification isn't really in vogue right now, despite its effectiveness. Let's walk through it, shall we?


1. Your internal organs are sliced out (with the exception of the heart) and your body is packed with natron - a natural salt - to dry it out.

2. A long hook is used to smash up your brain and pull it out through your nose.

3. Your body is washed and oiled for forty days to keep your skin elastic (because nobody likes a wrinkly mummy.)


And finally, 4. You are stuffed with sawdust and wrapped in linens. Mummy complete! Did I mention that the removed organs are stored in jars that accompany you to the afterlife? Talk about convenience. The importance of this process goes much deeper than providing a window into an ancient culture. It's also one of the only preservation methods that allows us to examine thousand-year old corpses for medical purposes.  



Mummies can be studied unobtrusively using CAT scans and X-rays, revealing invaluable information about their health and life expectancy, and the results of these scans can be surprising. In 2009, CAT scans of 16 mummies at the Egyptian National Museum revealed atherosclerosis (thickening of the arteries due to fat and cholesterol buildup) in five mummies, and was probably present in four more. While heart disease is one of the leading causes of death worldwide, it's often linked to modern lifestyle factors like smoking, lack of exercise, and processed foods rich in salt and fat. But results like these could make us reconsider. If atherosclerosis was widespread 3,500 years ago, it's possible that humans as a species are genetically prone to it. 


Scans of other mummies, including King Tut himself, have been underway for the last few years. And our understanding of other diseases - from sickle cell disease to malaria to TB - could also be enriched with the help of a few mummified test subjects. So let's just hope they make it through the night. 


More Reading:


Donoghue, H., Lee, O., Minnikin, D., Besra, G., Taylor, J., & Spigelman, M. (2009). Tuberculosis in Dr Granville's mummy: a molecular re-examination of the earliest known Egyptian mummy to be scientifically examined and given a medical diagnosis Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences, 277 (1678), 51-56 DOI: 10.1098/rspb.2009.1484


Hawass, Z., Gad, Y., Ismail, S., Khairat, R., Fathalla, D., Hasan, N., Ahmed, A., Elleithy, H., Ball, M., Gaballah, F., Wasef, S., Fateen, M., Amer, H., Gostner, P., Selim, A., Zink, A., & Pusch, C. (2010). Ancestry and Pathology in King Tutankhamun's Family JAMA: The Journal of the American Medical Association, 303 (7), 638-647 DOI: 10.1001/jama.2010.121



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