Mummies revealed

28 July 2015

On a chilly December morning in 2014, some casualties arrived at Royal Brompton Hospital in London. Nothing unusual in that, yet these (already deceased) individuals were no ordinary patients. Julia Nurse tells us about some of the mummies in our collection and the day they were CT scanned.

In one case were the tiny remains of a mummified two month old baby boy from Egypt, believed to date from the period 1069-664 BCE. The other two, both males, had travelled from deepest Peru around 2 centuries later.

All had been hand-picked from Henry Wellcome’s collection of “native curios” as examples of different types of mummification. The purpose of their outing in December was to have them scanned for use on an interactive autopsy table in Wellcome Collection’s newly refurbished Reading Room. The entire journey from store to hospital to table is revealed in the following film.

With the scanning room packed with Siemens technicians (makers of the CT dual-scanning technology), British Museum experts, hospital staff and Wellcome production team, we watched in suspense as each body was unwrapped and placed inside the scanner.

 Mummified infant.

Mummified infant, from 1069-664 BCE (Science Museum A 301301).

First up was the Egyptian mummified body which faintly rattled when lifted – a Victorian fake, we wondered? Gasps of relief resounded around the room as the data slowly emerged on the screen:  “It’s a baby” we exclaimed! The tiny fragments of skull that had dislodged, probably during mummification, were the culprit of the alarming noise.

 Emerging scanned image of the infant.

Emerging scanned image of the infant.

Bar the break to the infant’s fragile skull – possibly caused by the compression of the wrappings – the scans revealed an exceptionally preserved infant. With infant mortality a norm in Ancient Egypt, the lengthy and costly process of mummification was normally reserved for adults of high status, not babies, making this example all the more rare.

 A naturally preserved Peruvian mummified male in the foetal position.

A naturally preserved Peruvian male in the foetal position (Science Museum A 31655).

Even more well preserved was the male youth who is on display in Medicine Man. Hunched in foetal position, his facial features bear all their original details. Interestingly, it turns out that this young man may not have died alone. According to the auction sale catalogue of 1924, when “H. Stow” acquired them on behalf of Henry Wellcome, he was sold as a pair with another similarly foetal-like mummified “female” body: A31656.

 “A 31656”, listed as “daughter of the Chief of Cucutas” and alleged companion to A31655.

“A 31656”, listed as “daughter of the Chief of Cucutas” and alleged companion to A31655.

If we are to believe the dubious description of the auction catalogue, the South American pair were “trussed up and buried alive for eloping”. Allegedly, the bodies (believed to date from 1000 to 1470 CE) were from different tribes: the male is named as “Guimaral, 1st son of Mara, Chief of Maracaibo” (in modern day Venezuela). Having gained permission from his father to explore the surrounding country, he embarked on a “hazardous” journey eventually meeting the “beautiful” daughter of the “Chief of Cucutas”; their fate was sealed and they were preserved for eternity together. The florid text goes on to reveal that they were exhumed by “Telmo Rodriguez” in 1910 “from a cave on the Bucasius mountain 3000 metres above sea level”.

 A page from the ledger.

A page from the ledger.

Probably the only truth in this “Romeo and Juliet” story – intended, presumably, to attract buyers – is the fact that they were buried up high, given their extremely good state of preservation. The dryness of a high altitude environment would have stopped the process of decay in its tracks: the brain, lungs and diaphragm are all still visible in the young male (albeit shrivelled).

Given the exceptional state of condition of A31655, much can be gleaned just from a closer look at his external appearance. But the scans reveal even more: his bone development indicates an age of 17 to 25 and his teeth show “shovelling” (scooped shape) signs typical of South Americans. He was clearly of high status: the hole in his ear indicates that he wore earrings and beaded decorations are still present on his wrists and ankles.

 Chest cavity of A 31656 showing diaphragm and heart.

Chest cavity of A 31655 showing diaphragm and heart.

The scanned dental and bone data of the human remains within the basket reveal a boy about 11 years old, dating to between 1400 to 1800 CE. Care and attention appears to have been given to the body with holes left in the basket to allow the face, knees and feet to be visible. Quite why this was done remains a mystery, though it is known in other examples.

The top knot of the basket had a clearer purpose according to Simon Hillson, Professor of Bio-Archaeology at University College London: this knot provided a useful means of transporting and lowering the body into a grave-pit. The sight of fabric stuffed inside the abdominal cavity provoked the most interest though: the presence of the organs would have quickened the decay process so they were often removed; only the brain appears to have been left. To avoid the abdomen collapsing in on itself in death, the empty torso cavity was filled to support the body.

 Basket mummy in Science Museum stores.

Basket mummy in Science Museum stores.

Did scanning these human remains reveal much more to us? In most burial cases, whether wrapped, dried or “bundled”, each individual would have entered the afterlife accompanied by the trappings of life: pots, jewellery and sometimes food. Without this crucial evidence, the bodies are robbed of their cultural association, a tragic fact for archaeologists today.

By piecing back together the stories of these human bodies from what we have gleaned from the scans, we are at least giving back some of the dignity stripped from them when they were removed from their original place of rest. Only DNA analysis of the bodies can firm up their dates and cultural context; that would mean another visit to hospital, a trip I would more than happily make again!

Julia is the Web Content Officer in the Wellcome Library and co-curator of the Reading Room.