The International Ancient Egyptian Mummy Tissue Bank at the Manchester Museum

By Lambert-Zazulak, Patricia | Antiquity, March 2000 | Go to article overview

The International Ancient Egyptian Mummy Tissue Bank at the Manchester Museum


Lambert-Zazulak, Patricia, Antiquity


The Mummy Tissue Bank at Manchester Museum provides a new resource for Egyptian research. As Dr Lambert-Zazulak explains, new techniques of analysis and the spate of new questions about ancient diseases place this initiative at the front line.

Key-words: Egypt, tissue bank, disease, mummy, Manchester, schistosomiasis

Introduction -- the scientific background

The very varied, and sometimes eccentric, history of the collection and study of Egyptian mummies accounts for the many locations, conditions and kinds of documentation that exist for such mummies in the present day (Ikram & Dodson 1998: 61-102; Germer 1997: 95-115; Rowley-Conwy et al. 1998: 108-20; Wortham 1971: 16, 44-6, 93-5; Cecil 1903; Woodcock 1996; Dawson 1926-1927; Jarcho 1981; France 1991). These mummies were studied individually, sometimes in uncontrolled conditions, far away from their original burial contexts (Pettigrew 1834; Granville 1825; Dawson 1934).

At sites in Upper Egypt, anthropometric studies of thousands of mummies and skeletal remains were carried out (e.g. Elliot Smith & Wood Jones 1910). Elliot Smith also conducted much of the unwrapping and anatomical work on the royal mummies in Cairo (Elliot Smith 1912). Scientific work at the microscopic level, however, was pioneered by Ruffer (1921: 49-89; Sandison 1955; Turner & Holtom 1981).

Ultrastructural and chemical methods began to be applied to mummies which had been unwrapped for scientific study (Murray 1910: 31-53). The development of palaeopathological and forensic techniques enabled a wider range of tests to be carried out on small tissue samples. These were applied at the multidisciplinary unwrapping of mummy number 1770 by the Manchester Mummy Research Team in 1975 (Tapp 1979a; Curry et al. 1979: 103-12). It was the aim of the Team to develop a methodology for the scientific investigation of mummies and to further knowledge of the life and diseases of the ancient Egyptians. Other multidisciplinary and collaborative teams have also worked on mummies (Taylor 1995; Parsche & Ziegelmayer 1986: 81-6; Goyon & Josset 1988; Cockburn et al. 1980: 52-70; Hart et al. 1977; Strouhal & Vyhanek 1976; Vyhanek & Strouhal 1976; Titlbachova & Titlbach 1977; Nameckova 1977; Silar 1979; D'Auria et al. 1992: 246-7), and the value of such efforts in elucidating a multidimensional picture of ancient culture and health is being increasingly realized (Cockburn & Cockburn (ed.) 1980; David (ed.) 1986).

Consideration of the conservation and preservation of the integrity of the specimen means that the unwrapping of a complete mummy is a rare event in modern times (Taylor 1995: 69-88; Wilkinson 1996). Thus the application of non-destructive methods of testing, such as radiology, has assumed increased importance (Harris & Wente (ed.) 1980; Gray 1967).

Specialized, virtually non-destructive, endoscopic techniques (Tapp & Wildsmith 1986: 351-6; Manialawi et al. 1978; Notman et al. 1986) mean that it is no longer necessary to unwrap a mummy in order to obtain tissue samples, even from deep within the body cavities. Endoscopy of precise areas located by prior plain radiographic and computed-tomography examinations enables researchers to sample specific areas where disease is suggested. These techniques, along with reliable methods of testing ancient tissues (David 1997; Deelder 1990; et al.), enable comparative data to be gathered for increasingly larger series of mummies (Flaherty & Haigh 1984: 96-103; Borgognini-Tarli & Paoli 1972). Such evidence at the molecular level is often well preserved, and deep endoscopy also reduces the chances of later contamination occurring in the sample. Microscopic and molecular methods can thus corroborate or reveal the diagnosis of diseases, some of which do not appear in techniques studying the larger structural elements of the mummy (Miller et al. 1994).

New methodologies

The drawing together of investigative procedures from a multitude of disciplines has resulted in a rational, standard methodology for the study of Egyptian mummies.

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