New Scans Of Ancient Egyptian Mummies Reveal Brain And Other Organs Inside

What lay beneath the portraits had been a mystery for over 400 years. © Zesch S, et al. PLOS One (2020); CC BY 4.0 © Sculpture Collection, Dresden State Art Collections, photos: H.-P. Klut/E. Estel

Researchers have taken a peek inside three wrapped mummies first discovered over 400 years ago. Of Egyptian origin, the remains date from the late third to the middle fourth century CE, slotting within the late Roman Period. After their excavation in the early 17th and late 19th centuries, two of them went on an adventure as part of the collection of the Elector of Saxony and King of Poland August II eventually landing in Dresden, Germany, in 1728. The third was from an Egyptian museum’s collection, which eventually joined the other two in Dresden. As a trio, they represent the only known surviving stucco-shrouded portrait mummies from the ancient Egyptian necropolis of Saqqara.

Stucco-shrouded mummies are unique in the way in which they were buried. The process is an elaborate one, placing the bodies on wooden boards before wrapping them in textiles, plaster, gold, and adorning the end product with a whole-body portrait. Reporting in PLOS ONE, investigations using computed tomography (CT) scans of the portrait mummies revealed an adult male (~25-30 years old), a middle-aged female (~30-40 years old), and a young female (~17-19 years old) were concealed beneath the shrouds. The two females were buried sporting beautiful necklaces and hairpins, while all three contained artifacts that were likely intended as payment to Charon, a Roman and Greek deity said to ferry souls across the River Styx en route to the Underworld.

The shrouded mummies were painted with a full-body portrait. © Zesch S, et al. PLOS One (2020); CC BY 4.0; © Sculpture Collection, Dresden State Art Collections, photos: H.-P. Klut/E. Estel

While all three mummies were kitted out with the same shroud, the two adults were poorly preserved compared to the corpse of the younger female, which the researchers say could have happened before or after they were found and opened back in 1615. However, CT scans revealed the younger female still contained the remains of her brain and several other internal organs, which evidently weren't removed as part of the mummification process.

The brain had shriveled but was complete with brainstem at the base of the skull, as seen in the scan below. There was no evidence of a brain left in the adult male, but curiously there were no signs that it had been drained out via the nose either, or that embalming fluid had been used. The researchers suspect the mummies were only preserved using a desiccation mixture called natron that would dehydrate a water-filled human nicely.

The younger female's brain, while shrunken, was definitely still inside her skull. S Zesch et al. PLOS One 2020, CC BY 4.0

You might be wondering why those in charge of mummifying these people didn't mash up and remove their brains using the nasal scoop technique for which the Ancient Egyptians are famous, but the exact process of mummification, like all fashions, was actually changing all the time.

"It was a common practice to remove the brain and internal organs especially during the 18th and 20th Dynasty (New Kingdom)," lead researcher Stephanie Zesch, a physical anthropologist and Egyptologist at the German Mummy Project at Reiss Engelhorn Museum told IFLScience. "During the later periods of ancient Egypt, the applied techniques of body treatment however showed a greater variety. Previous radiological investigations of Roman Periods mummies already revealed that some showed no evidence of removal of the brain and intestines. The identification of the preserved brain in the case of the young female, thus, supports this idea of changing mummification techniques in the late phase of  the mummification tradition in Egypt."

The scan also revealed the females had been buried with necklaces (left) and even a hairpin on the younger female (right). S Zesch et al. PLOS One 2020, CC BY 4.0

Cause of death for the three individuals couldn’t be diagnosed using CT, but there were signs of benign conditions such as tooth cavities, arthritis, and growths on their scans. While the lives of these three ancient humans remain a mystery, the research reveals fascinating insights into the burial practices of affluent Egyptians in the late Roman Period.

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