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What is the project about ?

The NMS Mummy Project is a 4 year research project to investigate all the Egyptian mummies in the collection. This involves bringing together experts from various disciplines, including Egyptologists, conservators, scientists and photographers. The project is also involving specialists in forensic pathology, anatomy, oral medicine, radiology, human genetics and also facial reconstruction.

What results are hoped for ?

The investigators are looking for evidence of diet, disease, trauma, age at death and possible causes of death. There are also plans to reconstruct faces based on CT scans. This should be particularly interesting in the case of one of the mummies from the Roman period, which has a painted representation of the deceased inlaid into the mummy's head.

CT scanning of mummies

Radiological techniques can be used for non destructive testing of mummies. One such technique is computed tomography (CT), an X-Ray method which shows 'slices' through the body. This technique allows for a 3-d reconstruction to be made of the scanned object.

The first NMS mummy was examined in 1991. From the teeth it was possible to say that the mummy was 14 years old at death. Interestingly the scan showed that there was a hole in the skull. This wound appeared to have occurred before death, as there appears to be evidence of some healing around the margins of the hole. It could be possible that this is an early method of Trepanation, where a section of the skull is removed to relieve pressure on the brain, although this technique is unproven in ancient Egypt. Damage to the bones in the nose indicate that the brain was removed this way during the mummification process. This was the standard method used.

A second mummy was examined in 1995 using an advanced spiral scanner. This confirmed an age at death of 5 years. This mummy is interesting in that the body is highly disarticulated, suggesting that it was not mummified for some time after death

The mummies from Qurneh

Some of the most impressive items on display in the National Museums of Scotland were discovered by Sir Flinders Petrie in 1909 at Qurneh. This burial was exceptionally rich in grave goods. Petrie himself described it as 'probably ... the richest and most detailed undisturbed burial that has been completely recorded and published'. The artifacts from this excavation date from the 17th Dynasty. Notable among the items presently on display in the museum is the lid of the woman's coffin, which is heavily gilded and painted with blue and black pigments

Both mummies have been in storage, and until this year had never been examined since they were unwrapped by Petrie nearly 90 years ago.

The bones were unpacked on the 29th January 1996. The wrappings of brown paper and newspaper were also found to contain a large number of small faience beads.

The bones were laid out to form the almost complete skeletons of a woman and a child. They were found to be in excellent condition, with the cartilage exceptionally well preserved. From the skeletons it was not possible to determine the cause of death but age could be estimated. The woman is thought to be about 21, with the child about 3.

Samples of DNA from the woman and child are to be analysed by experts at Cambridge University to establish if there was any relationship between them

At the time of the original investigation, Petrie suggested that the skull of the woman was not typical of an average ancient Egyptian woman and that several of the artifacts found may be foreign (possibly Syrian). DNA analysis may reveal the origins of the woman.


XRF used for artifact analysis

X-Ray Fluorescence (XRF) analysis is a technique which can be used to determine the composition of an artifact. This can give clues to the technology of construction, period, culture and use of an object. In certain artifacts XRF can show that an item may be constructed over a comparatively long period of time.

One such item is a mirror from the collection. Copper was the main metal used in ancient Egypt, and a relationship between the composition of the metal and it's age can be established. In the case of the ancient Egyptians the composition of the copper, and it's alloys, developed as the available smelting technology advanced. The earliest copper finds are dated at approximately 5000 B.C. and contain a high level of impurity. By the time of the 1st Dynasty c.3000 B.C. arsenic was alloyed with the copper to improve the metal. This development of the alloys advanced through bronze, a copper-tin alloy, to brass which only became available during the Roman period (30 B.C.).

The mirror was examined using XRF. It was thought to date from the New Kingdom (1550 to 1069 B.C.), but the analysis showed that the composition of the mirror varied. The main oval and an attached figure were made of bronze, but horns on the mirror were made of brass. These horns must therefore date from the Roman period. It is possible that the brass horns were later additions to a much older mirror.

The bronze oval and figure also showed different compositions. The oval contained little lead, whereas the figure had a high lead content. This is explained by the method of construction. A higher lead content would make the metal more fluid, and easier to pour into a mould. A harder metal, with less lead, was used for the oval section which would make it easier to beat into shape then polish.

This information was obtained from a mummy project fact sheet produced by the National Museums of Scotland.

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