VATICAN CITY — Experts have just concluded a two-year study on the seven adult mummies in the Vatican Museums’ collections.
The mummies underwent a full battery of X-rays, CT scans, endoscopic explorations, histological exams and a whole spectrum of genetic testing, leading one researcher to joke: “These mummies have gotten more medical attention now than when they were alive.”
In fact, scientists can now make the kind of diagnoses ancient Egyptian doctors were probably unable to divine.
The scientific advancements in genetics, imaging technology and nano research also have brought new and unexpected discoveries with minimally and non-invasive techniques – a far cry from the “unwrapping” autopsies of the 19th century.
For one thing, the mummy Ny-Maat-Re, “who we always referred to as ‘she,’ is in fact actually a man,” said Alessia Amenta, Egyptologist and curator of the Vatican Museums’ Department for the Antiquities of Egypt and the Near East.
The hieroglyphics on the mummy’s three-dimensional painted coverings made of plaster and linen bandages – called cartonnage – had identified it as “the daughter of Sema-Tawi.” But 3-D CT scan results from early January showed the never-unwrapped mummy is clearly male, Amenta said.
“This discovery is very recent and opens a whole host of questions we hope we will be able to answer,” she said during a Vatican news conference Jan. 17.
The Vatican Museums used its own diagnostic laboratory for the first phase of tests, which included the X-rays and endoscopies.
But Amenta then turned to the EURAC-Institute for Mummies and the Iceman – in the northern Italian city of Bolzano – which specializes in gathering and analyzing ancient genetic and other data from mummies.
Albert Zink, scientific director of the institute, presented the results to the Vatican and the public Jan. 17.
He said histological exams on one mummy found what looks to be a small benign tumor on the scalp; if further tests confirmed the result, then “it might be the first case of this kind of tumor for a mummy,” he said.
Molecular studies showed what had been invisible to the naked eye: the two mummies on public display in the Vatican Museums were “not very well preserved” and, in fact, are in worse shape than the five other specimens being kept in storage, Zink said.
“That means it’s urgent the exhibition conditions be changed,” he said.
The studies were a major milestone in the Vatican’s Mummy Project, begun in 2007 to analyze and better preserve its mummy collection.
Mummies are unlike any other museum treasure – be it a priceless pottery shard or prehistoric arrowhead – because a mummy is a human being, Zink and Amenta agreed.
A mummy must be studied, moved and displayed in a dignified and respectful manner, Amenta said. “These are people who had a life, who loved, who lived, had kids, suffered from diseases and mourned like each one of us,” she said.
From a conservation standpoint, it also means a mummy has special needs for storage and exhibition, especially with a climate control system to inhibit its decay and best maintain its mummified state, Zink said.
As far as research goes, mummies are a treasure trove of valuable information because everything about them — how their teeth have worn down, the contents of their stomachs, how they were dressed and buried, what diseases or ailments they suffered from — all provide numerous clues to the lives, customs and religious beliefs of ancient peoples, Amenta said.
Even more importantly, discovering the different forms of cancers or other illnesses in the ancient individuals provides valuable insight into today’s diseases and how they evolved genetically over time, she said.
“We can reconstruct the evolutionary pathways of important diseases such as tuberculosis or malaria that are still present today and are still a major health problem,” Zink said.
The tiniest bit of genetic material can provide astonishing details, he said, like when they discovered that the 5,000-year-old Iceman in EURAC’s care was lactose intolerant and had Lyme disease.
“These mummies are important resources for all kinds of research and if they aren’t conserved in a good way, we lose a lot of information because their protein and DNA degrades,” he said.
As the Vatican Museums continues its conservation efforts, the next step will be examining the two child-size mummies, which Amenta said, might actually be mummified animals or falcons, which would not be unusual.
Examinations also began in January on the many layers of linen wrappings on a second mummy, she said.
The wrappings around the face and neck had been ripped or cut open by someone long ago – probably looking for the precious jewels and gold often positioned under the wrappings or around the face of mummies, she said.
The woven wrappings display “splendid craftsmanship,” and since they’re cut rather cleanly open, experts can look for clues in the different layers, much like a geologist would.
In June, together with the Louvre in Paris and the Dutch National Museum of Antiquities in Leiden, the Vatican will host the “First Vatican Coffin Conference.”
The Vatican is spearheading the initiative to study the construction and painting techniques of sarcophagi during Egypt’s so-called Third Intermediate Period, which was 3,000 years ago.
It will be the first time internationally renowned scholars from a variety of disciplines will compare their research on the period’s coffins, which reflect the clerical culture of the increasingly powerful Theban high priests, she said.
No in-depth, comprehensive studies have been done on the period’s wood painting technique, she said, and no ancient Egyptian texts have been found explaining the process.
Scholars wonder whether they are the same techniques used in medieval times “and so we are studying these sarcophagi the same way we study medieval panel paintings.”
But “we’re finding out that the more we advance, the more we discover we know nothing,” she added.