Egyptian Mummies Weren’t Given Enemas, Study Shows

mummies
Ancient Egyptian mummies have been an object of fascination. The Greek historian Herodotus, who lived in the fifth century B.C., visited Egypt and wrote a description of the mummification process. Since no ancient Egyptian text survives, his account forms the basis of many descriptions in modern books and museum displays.

Now a new study by two Canadian scientists suggests Herodotus may have gotten it wrong.

Yahoo News reports that two of the key points in Herodotus’ account – that the internal organs were dissolved with cedar oil enemas and the heart was always left in place – don’t stand up to scientific scrutiny. Researchers have examined studies of 150 mummies and put seven through CT scans and found little evidence of cedar oil. Also, in three-quarters of the mummies the heart was missing.

Herodotus also said that the brains were removed with a hook pushed through the nose. The study shows brains in about a fifth of mummies.

So why did Herodotus get it wrong? The study’s coauthor Andrew Wade of the University of Western Ontario says mummification was a lucrative business and its secrets closely guarded. In other words, Herodotus was handed a line. Imagine a bunch of mummy makers drinking wine by the Nile after a busy day at the office and laughing about that clueless Greek who showed up asking questions. “Cedar oil enemas? Yeah, save that for the tourists!”

Another possibility is that the mummy makers cut corners. In many animal mummies, used as offerings to the gods, researchers found only partial skeletons or wrappings that contained nothing. Temples made lots of money selling animal mummies to the faithful, and they created fakes to increase profits.

The Michael C. Carlos Museum at Emory University has a longer account of Herodotus’ writings on mummification here. The study was published in the latest issue of HOMO: The Journal of Comparative Human Biology.

[Photo courtesy Wikimedia Commons]

Egypt Reopens Important Tombs At Saqqara


Despite facing political turmoil, authorities in Egypt have been forging ahead with renovations of key archaeological sites. Last week saw the renovation and reopening of two important tombs, the Serapeum and the tomb of Akhethotep & Ptahhotep.

The Serapeum dates to 1390 B.C. and was a tomb for holy bulls. I visited in 1991 and the memories of the gloomy underground corridors and giant sarcophagi are still vivid in my mind. It was closed in 2001 due to water leaking inside and shifts in the earth that threatened the underground structure.

The tomb of Akhethotep & Ptahhotep housed a father and son who were both high officials for the last two pharaohs of the Fifth Dynasty around 2375 B.C. The double tomb is brightly painted with scenes of religious rituals, agriculture, hunting, and children playing.

Both tombs are at Saqqara, 30 kilometers south of Cairo and the site of Egypt’s first pyramid.

Authorities plan to open five more tombs soon. The government has spent millions of dollars on this work and hopes to lure back tourists who have been scared away by the recent unrest.

Check out this video from the Chinese-American NTD Television for some striking visuals of these two ancient tombs.

Animal mummies discovered in Egypt

animal mummiesA cache of animal mummies is among the finds from a recent excavation in Egypt.

The discovery was made by a University of Toronto team last summer at Abydos and was announced at a recent meeting. Abydos was the first burial ground for the pharaohs and remained a holy place throughout the history of ancient Egypt. The tomb of Osiris, king of underworld, was believed to be there.

Because of this, Egyptians wanted to be buried there too and numerous tombs have been found at the site. The Canadian team found a mysterious building that contained a pile of animal mummies. These animals could have served various purposes. Usually they were offerings to the gods, but they could also act as food for the afterlife or even post-mortem pets.

Many of the deities of Egypt had animal heads and aspects, and animals that were mummified as offerings were of the same species as the associated god. Hawks were dedicated to Horus, ibises to Thoth, cats to Sekhmet, etc.

Most of the 83 animal mummies found in Abydos in the latest field season were dogs, and may have been offerings to Wepwawet, a wolf-headed god associated with Osiris. Wepwawet was a war god and an “opener of the ways” who protected the dead on their journey into the underworld. The team also uncovered mummified sheep, goats, and two cats.

The function of the building where these mummies were found is unclear, although it may have been a temple. It’s not known exactly when it was built either. A few inscriptions at the site refer to Seti I, who ruled from 1290–1279 BC. The team also found a wooden statue that may represent Hatshepsut, a female pharaoh who ruled from 1479–1458 BC, and two tombs. One of them tombs has yet to be opened.

Animal mummies are common finds throughout Egypt. Everything from shrews to catfish to bulls were dipped in preservatives and wrapped in linen. Some were given elaborate sarcophagi, like the gilded one shown in the photo gallery. Others mummies were fakes. There was a big market for animal mummies as they were a popular sacrifice. Thus unscrupulous priests would often create mummies that contained only a few bones or feathers of the animal, or sometimes no animal parts at all.

Any museum with a good Egyptian collection will have at least some animal mummies. Museums that I’ve seen that have especially large collections include the British Museum (London), the National Museum (Cairo), the Louvre (Paris), the Royal Ontario Museum (Toronto), the Ashmolean (Oxford), and the Met (New York). Have you seen a good collection of these pickled pets? Tell us about it in the comments section!

Photo of cat mummy in the Louvre, Paris, courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

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Egyptologists get back to work despite continuing tensions

Egyptologists
Egypt has been in the news again this week with more tensions between the people and the army. What has received less coverage is the fact that Egyptologists are quietly resuming their work after an unwanted vacation. You can’t keep a good Egyptologist down, and these folks are busy making discoveries and taking care of the country’s fabulous monuments. Old projects are getting back into gear, and new excavations are starting up.

An international plan to protect the fabulous temples at Luxor from ground water has resumed operations. The water is eating away at the foundations of Luxor, Karnak, and other temples and the team hopes to divert it to a nearby reservoir.

Earlier this month, construction workers stumbled upon an ancient tomb with a hieroglyphic inscription in the suburbs of Cairo. An archaeological team hurried to the site and discovered it dated to the 26th Dynasty (c.685-525 BC).

A lot of looting happened after what the Egyptian press refers to as the “events in January”. Luckily, some of it is being recovered. Egyptian Tourism and Antiquities Police recovered a painted limestone relief that had been stolen from a warehouse.

Some Egyptologists are making discoveries without even going to Egypt. Dr. Aidan Dodson of the University of Bristol, UK, walked into the Torquay Museum and realized a sarcophagus they had on display was an extremely rare one intended for royalty. Further investigation revealed that the child that had been buried with it was in fact 1,000 years younger than his casket. Elaborate coffins were expensive, so the grieving parents decided to save some money, dumped out the previous occupant, and put Junior inside.

Hopefully this field season will be a good one, and there’ll be plenty of Egyptology news to talk about here on Gadling.

[Karnak photo courtesy Sean Ellis]

Queen Hatshepsut and the case of the poison skin cream

HatshepsutGerman archaeologists studying a skin cream once owned by Queen Hatshepsut have found evidence that the female pharaoh may have accidentally poisoned herself.

The tiny bottle, which has an inscription saying it was owned by Hatshepsut, was still partially filled with a substance that the archaeologists subjected to chemical analysis. It included nutmeg and palm oils, commonly used to soothe skin irritations. It also included benzopyrene, which smells nice but is highly carcinogenic. It’s found in burnt substances such as pitch, coal tar, cigarette smoke, and burnt foods such as barbeque and coffee. Keep that in mind this Labor Day Weekend.

In contrast to the idealized statue of Hatshepsut shown here, her mummy revealed that she was obese, had liver cancer, and probably suffered from diabetes.

Hatshepsut’s rule saw two decades of peace and ambitious trade expeditions as far as Puntland, which was probably in the modern unrecognized state of the same name. Her modern-looking temple at Deir el Bahri is one of Egypt´s most stunning attractions. You can reach it by bus, or if you’re feeling adventurous you can take a mountain path from the Valley of the Kings, which leads you to a cliff overlooking the temple before sloping down past the tombs of its builders and to the temple itself. I did this one August, which is not the best time. That was probably as bad for my skin as Hatshepsut’s skin cream.

[Photo courtesy Rob Koopman]