The Art of Medicine in Ancient Egypt

USA TODAY, October 2005 | Go to article overview

The Art of Medicine in Ancient Egypt


THE ANCIENT EGYPTIANS inhabited a perilous land. In addition to the dangerous animals with which they came into regular contact--including lions, hippopotami, crocodiles, snakes, and scorpions--they were subject to diseases with causes that were not well understood. As a result, the Egyptians amassed a wealth of knowledge about the treatment of injuries and disease. Furthermore, to protect themselves from perils, both seen and unseen, they incorporated powerful talismans into their art.

This long-neglected area of Egyptian art is explored in the exhibition, "The Art of Medicine in Ancient Egypt," providing a new perspective on some 65 of the most beautiful and intriguing pieces from The Metropolitan Museum of Art's collection.

The centerpiece will be a surgical papyrus--the sole borrowed work in the exhibition--which is on loan from the New York Academy of Medicine. It is one of only two complete medical texts from ancient Egypt. Because of the handwriting, it has been dated to around 1600 B.C., but on the basis of language, the work is believed to be a copy of another text that was written some three centuries earlier. It includes descriptions, examination procedures, diagnoses, and treatments for 48 distinct injuries, beginning at the top of the head and ending at the shoulder blades and chest. The injuries listed are consistent with those sustained in war or construction. Rarely seen even by Egyptologists, the manuscript's presentation represents its first public display in more than 50 years.

Flanking the entrance to the exhibition are two of the world's best-preserved colossal statues of Sekhmet, the lion-headed Goddess of Healing--her name means "the powerful one"--who also was the Goddess of War, Violent Storms, and Pestilence. (The physicians of ancient Egypt belonged to her priesthood.) The seven-foot-tall statues originally stood with some 600 similar ones in the mortuary temple of Amenhotep III (Dynasty 18, c. 1390-1352 B.C.).

A limestone statue of Yuny (early Dynasty 19, c. …

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