British Museum blog

Eight mummies, eight lives, eight stories

John H Taylor and Daniel Antoine, curators, British Museum

We may think that we know the ancient Egyptians on account of the abundance of carved and painted images and the many texts on stone and papyrus that have survived, but these sources convey a formal, partial and sanitised view; to a large degree they tell us only what the Egyptians wanted posterity to know.

The first mummy entered the Museum’s collection in 1756, and for the past 200 years none of the mummies have been unwrapped. But modern technology, in the form of the CT (computed tomography) scanner, has transformed the way that we can study them, allowing us to see within the wrappings and the mummified bodies, in a non-invasive and non-destructive manner.

We can now look behind the mask of material culture and encounter the actual people of the ancient Nile Valley through a forensic study of their remains – and these often tell a different story to the one we knew before.

The scanning process captures thousands of cross-sectional images of the mummies at a thickness of 0.6 mm for every ‘slice’. These show internal features in startling detail, and by stacking the slices together and using volume rendering software, the mummy can be viewed on screen as a three-dimensional model. ‘Segmentation’ allows continuous surfaces of the same density – whether bone, textile, or artefacts such as amulets of faience or metal placed inside the wrappings – to be visualised and studied separately with precision and clarity.

Padiamenet, a temple doorkeeper. Shown here is a detail of the cartonnage case that contained his mummy. 25th Dynasty, c. 700 BC (EA 6682)

Padiamenet, a temple doorkeeper. Shown here is a detail of the cartonnage case that contained his mummy. 25th Dynasty, c. 700 BC (EA 6682)

The new exhibition Ancient lives: new discoveries highlights some of the remarkable findings that have been made using this method, bringing together a selection of eight mummies from the Museum’s collection, interactive displays showing visualisations and displays of related objects to shed further light on the life and death of these ancient people.

Tamut, a high-ranking priest's daughter. Shown here is a detail of the cartonnage case that contains the mummy.

Tamut, a high-ranking priest’s daughter. Shown here is a detail of the cartonnage case that contains the mummy.

Scan showing calcified plaque deposits, called atheromas, found in Tamut's left femoral artery, that runs along the thigh bone (femur).

Scan showing calcified plaque deposits, called atheromas, found in Tamut’s left femoral artery that runs along the thigh bone (femur).

Visualisation showing a view of Tamut's feet, with metal covers on her toenails and a large sheet-metal image of the winged scarab beetle Khepri propelling the disc of the sun, placed inside the mummy-wrappings.

Visualisation showing a view of Tamut’s feet, with metal covers on her toenails and a large sheet-metal image of the winged scarab beetle Khepri propelling the disc of the sun, placed inside the mummy-wrappings.

The mummies we have selected originally lived in a span of over 4,000 years, from about 3500 BC to AD 700, and came from a range of sites, from the Faiyum in Upper Egypt to the fourth cataract region of Sudan. Through them we have sought to illustrate the different aspects of the experience of living and dying in settlements along the Nile Valley. We see their faces and discover their ages, and find out from which illnesses they suffered – all things that are usually absent from the written record. We know something about what they did in life, what they ate, and what might have contributed to their death. Some of the evidence uncovered by the scans shows that diseases we often think of as ‘modern’ were prevalent then – for example, we can see very clear images of calcification of the arteries in two of the adults, Tamut, Chantress of Amun, and Padiamenet, the temple doorkeeper. This would have meant that both of them were at risk of developing cardiovascular disease and might have died from a heart attack or stroke.

Mummy of an unknown man from Thebes, around 600 BC. EA 22814

Mummy of an unknown man from Thebes, around 600 BC (EA 22814)

Visualisation showing a virtual section across the head of the man from Thebes, revealing the embalmer's tool (in green) and brain residue (highlighted in blue) found inside his skull.

Visualisation showing a virtual section across the head of the man from Thebes, revealing the embalmer’s tool (in green) and brain residue (highlighted in blue) found inside his skull.

The CT scans also allow us to glimpse some of the secrets of the embalmers who mummified the bodies. In the skull of a man from Thebes, who lived around 600 BC, it has been possible to visualise the small hole made inside the nose, through which most of the brain was removed. Unusually, a portion of his brain was left behind, perhaps because the probe which the embalmer was using broke off, and is clearly visible on the scan, lying in the back of the skull.

We hope that this exhibition will help to change the perception of museum visitors towards mummies. We are privileged to have these people of ancient Egypt and Sudan among us today. Our investigations into some of the fundamentals of human life – such as diet, disease, personal adornment, and childhood – help to remind us that all of the mummies were once living people and should be treated with respect, care and dignity.


Ancient lives: new discoveries is at the British Museum until 30 November 2014.
The exhibition is sponsored by Julius Baer. Technology partner Samsung

John Taylor and Daniel Antoine are also authors of the exhibition catalogue, Ancient lives, new discoveries: eight mummies, eight stories, available at the Museum’s online shop for £15 (£13.50 for Members).

Regarding the Dead: Human Remains in the British Museum, edited by Alexandra Fletcher, Daniel Antoine and JD Hill is also published by British Museum Press.

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Amara West excavations 2013: expecting the unexpected and a ‘Howard Carter moment’

The 'Howard Carter moment'. Physical anthropologist, Michaela Binder gets a first peak into the  chamber(s) of Grave 244Neal Spencer, British Museum

The latest excavation season at Amara West in Sudan began three weeks ago, with a wide range of excavations and associated research excavations taking place in this 3,000-year old ancient Egyptian town on the banks of the Nile.

Amidst the chilly 6.30am starts, logistical challenges, strong winds, plagues of biting nimiti-flies (and one crocodile sighting), we’ve been posting daily updates on our work – in the town, cemetery and research at the expedition house – on the project blog with more updates on Twitter: @NealSpencer_BM.

Sandpit: workmen seeking the south part of building D12.5

Sandpit: workmen seeking the south part of building D12.5

A desirable residence?

The full plan of house E13.5 was revealed in a matter of days, but the real surprise was the presence of stone doorways throughout the house, three of which were built re-using inscribed architecture from an earlier phase, including one doorjamb naming an official, Horhotep.

A five-chambered tomb discovered

The 'Howard Carter moment'. Physical anthropologist, Michaela Binder gets a first peak into the  chamber(s) of Grave 244

The ‘Howard Carter moment’. Physical anthropologist,
Michaela Binder gets a first peak into the chamber(s)
of Grave 244

Earlier this week, Michaela Binder had one of those moments that, as she put it, reminded her “that this can be the best occupation in the world”.

Removing sand from the top of a grave shaft, discovering a small opening, then another and more digging until the flash of a torch reveals five chambers in the largest tomb yet to be found at Amara West.

Read more about the discovery of a five-chambered tomb, by Michaela Binder, physical anthropologist.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Initial discoveries in the eastern burial chamber of G243

Two beer jars and a plate in the north-western corner of a chamber burial

Two beer jars and a plate in the north-western corner of a chamber burial

Having discovered a new chamber tomb, Barbara Chauvet set about the task of excavating it to reveal, and record its contents. Read about initial discoveries in the eastern burial chamber of G243.

Fertility figurines and ancient architecture re-used

Clay fertility figurine (F2284) found in villa D12.5

Clay fertility figurine (F2284) found in villa D12.5

Among the hundreds of objects revealed in excavation (and thousands and thousands of pottery sherds), a fragment of a female figurine offers a glimpse into the beliefs and concerns of the town’s inhabitants. Modelled in clay, and sometimes referred to as “concubines of the dead”, fertility figures are thought to relate to conception, rebirth or sexuality, as explained by Marie Vandenbeusch, our finds registrar.

The discovery of a door lintel inscribed for Ramses II, re-used as a shelf in a modern Nubian house, was one of the more unusual ways an object comes to light.

Ash, ovens … and faience?

Brushing back the surface to reveal ancient ovens

Brushing back the surface to reveal ancient ovens

While villa D12.5 is slow to reveal its secrets, outside house E13.5 we have discovered a room provided with six large bread ovens and grinding emplacements, now being excavated by Shadia Abdu Rabo from the Sudan National Corporation of Antiquities and Museums.

Further north, in an area we did not plan to excavate, Sarah Doherty is excavating a building (E13.16) that might be a house or a bakery, along with interesting finds, from hieratic ostraca to a well-preserved necklace. The last few days have seen an earlier phase emerge, with large ceramic ovens surrounded by waste that might relate to faience production.

Looking forward

It already feels like the end of the season is approaching too fast. With so much more work to be done, our days will become longer and longer: we’re re-organising our object storeroom, hoping to reveal the full plan of villa D12.5, wondering if the five-chamber tomb can be fully excavated this season, and about to commence detailed micromorphological sampling of floor layers.

Two new programmes of research will also start: Susie Green (UCL) will be joining us to capture 3D visualisations of the housing neighbourhood (E13.3), while Alexandra Winkels (University of Fribourg) will be investigating the technology of ancient wall-plastering in the houses.

Leave a comment or tweet using #amarawest

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After-excavation care at Amara West

Elisabeth Pamberg, archaeological illustrator/conservator

Salt crystals on the rim of beer jar C8008

I visited the stores where we keep the objects excavated from the site, to check they were in good condition. Objects from a site like this one often contain salts that could damage them, so I wasn’t surprised to observe that several objects had salt crystals on them, particularly the pottery and some stone sculpture.

The artefacts retrieved at Amara West are subject to environmental conditions which include high humidity and salinity, the result of the site’s proximity to the Nile. Ceramic and stone buried in soil absorb the salts present in the deposits.

Beer jar C8007 after desalination this week

Following my advice, and discussions with Marie Millet and Neal Spencer, two beer jars from grave 201 were chosen for treatment, as they were affected by salt, with a thick visible layer of white concretions.

The salts are harmful and are not only an aesthetic issue; they obscure the object’s surface and can lead to surface exfoliation – the surface lifting off. Eventually, the crystallisation of salts can lead to disintegration.

The most efficient way to extract salt consists of soaking the objects in water over a long period of time, though extra steps need to be taken with fragile objects, or those bearing paint.

The removal of soluble salts can be a very lengthy procedure. In this case, the jars were bathed repeatedly in plenty of warm water for a period of eight days with the water being changed every day.

Unfortunately, no distilled or deionised water and conductivity meter (to measure the decreasing level of salt) is available here. Nonetheless, soluble salts appear to have completely disappeared from the jars, ensuring their long-term preservation.

Looking to future seasons, we might consider testing salt levels in the local river water, which is used for washing all pottery prior to study, recording and storage.

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In search of ancient Nile channels

Mark Macklin, University of Aberystwyth and
Jamie Woodward, University of Manchester

Pit dug through the ancient Nile channel at Amara West

As part of a wider international project investigating the evolution of the Nile and its major tributaries over the last 30,000 years (funded by the Australian Research Council since 2008, and more recently by The Leverhulme Trust), we have been reconstructing past river environments, channel movements, and flooding in the desert Nile of Northern Sudan.

We are especially interested in the impact that environmental change has had on riverine societies over the last 7,000 years or so.

Our research has focussed on two sections of the Sudanese Nile and involves collaboration with two British Museum field projects. The first is centred on Dongola, between the fourth and third Nile cataracts, and the second at Amara West.

The primary aim of our work at Amara West is to establish the relationship between the settlement of the New Kingdom town (about 1290-1070 BC), which is located on a former island within the River Nile, and the river channels that surround it.

Map showing the original island position of Amara West

During a reconnaissance visit in 2009 we began to investigate the sedimentary record preserved in the now abandoned channel immediately to the north of the town.

Two key questions we are hoping to answer include:

    Was the channel flowing during the New Kingdom as suggested by the town layout?
    Did the drying up of the channel affect the viability of settlement at Amara West?

This year a four metre-deep pit, shored up with 82 sandbags, was dug into the sediments infilling the now dry channel, which revealed a detailed record of past Nile floods.

Mark Macklin and Jamie Woodward examining layers of sand and river silt

On the basis of preliminary dating of sediment samples collected in 2009, this sequence begins around 1100 BC, close to the end of Egyptian occupation of the area, and spans several centuries.

Additional samples have been collected in the last few days to provide more precise dating for the drying out of the channel. These will allow us to better understand the relationship between changing river environments and the archaeological record of Amara West.

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