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How science can reveal the faces of ancient mummies

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7th Aug 2023 Life

How science can reveal the faces of ancient mummies
From the RD Archives (July 2000), this man has been dead for 2,000 years. So what could he possibly have to tell us? These are the secrets of the mummy
It is an early evening in October and security is tight, as a white van backs into the rear loading bay of London's Royal National Throat, Nose and Ear Hospital near King's Cross station. On board is a young man in his early twenties who must be moved with more secrecy than a rock star. Top ear surgeon Ghassan Alusi waits anxiously for his patient. His worries intensify when he sees that it takes six people to manoeuvre the man.

Artemidorus’ arrives at the hospital  

Sarcophagus
Sarcophagi had religious symbology painted on them and also depicted the occupant inside. Credit: KriveArt
This CT scan is far from routine. The patient's name is Artemidorus and he has been dead since the first century AD. The last people to see the highborn Egyptian in the flesh were the embalmers who mummified his body in oils, salts and spices, wrapped it in half a mile of linen bandages and then sealed him inside the exquisite red casing that is now being lifted gingerly out of a large foam-lined wooden crate.
Once it is on the scanner's conveyor, Alusi can see that the casing is decorated neck to foot in six ornate bands of gold leaf, depicting the triumph of cosmic order over chaos and Egyptian gods engaged in funerary rites. Now he understands why Artemidorus is one of the British Museum's most priceless objects and why the mummy galleries are the most popular attraction for its annual 5.6 million visitors.

Can the ancient mummies reveal truths about modern medicine?

By booking Artemidorus and 13 other gallery residents into London hospitals, the museum hopes that modern medical technology will reveal their centuries-old secrets.
Artemidorus's travelling companion is Joyce Filer, the museum's special assistant for human and animal remains and coordinator of this high-tech post-mortem.
"I deal with the dead," says raven-haired Filer. She once worked with deaf people as an audiologist before requalifying as an Egyptologist and an enthusiastic hunter of clues to ancient diseases in very old bones.
It is time to delve behind the outer casing of Artemidorus. Alusi nods to the radiographer and the five-foot-seven-inch-long gilded mummy slides silently into the scanner.

Finding Artemidorus

Mummies were housed in tombs like this one and laid undisturbed for thousands of years. Credit: Abril_
Artemidorus was unearthed in 1888 by the father of modern scientific archaeology, an Englishman called Sir William Matthew Flinders Petrie, 60 miles south-west of Cairo. He found hundreds of mummies piled up in large stone-lined pits, as though they were being stored.
Three caught his eye. "A procession...coming across the mounds, glittering in the sun," he wrote in his diary. "They are so fine and in such good condition. I must bring [them] away intact.
 "Each mummy's name was inscribed across its casing in Greek—the language of Alexander the Great, who conquered Egypt in 332BC. One read: "Farewell Artemidorus". A member of the elite, he was among the last Egyptians to be mummified as the spread of Christianity put an end to the elaborate 3,000-year-old practice of preserving the dead for passage to immortality in paradise.

Artemidorus’ journey to London

London has many artifacts from Ancient Egypt, including Cleopatra's Needle. Credit: Moussa81
While Flinders Petrie sent the other two mummies—believed to be Artemidorus's parents—to museums in Cairo and Manchester, Artemidorus found his way not to paradise but to London. He has remained in London ever since, serene and horizontal in the subdued lighting of Room 62 of the British Museum's Egyptian wing, gazing up at the millions peering at him through the glass of Case 22. You can see the nose quite clearly," says Ghassan Alusi excitedly as the scanner starts to reveal Artemidorus on screen, the first proper glimpse of him in 1,897 years.

Artemidorus’ CT scan

Unlike a standard X-ray which just shows the bones, the CT scan produces two-dimensional photographic cross sections or "slices" of body tissue. For maximum detail, Alusi has set the scanner so the mummy will stop to be snapped every two millimetres on his way through the machine.
Just above the nose, Filer and Alusi see a hole punctured into the skull. This is where the embalmers would usually have started the mummification—a task that could take up to 70 days—by inserting a long metal hook into Artemidorus's nose. This they would have pushed up the sinuses and into the skull.
"The embalmers would start the mummification—a task that could take up to 70 days—by inserting a long hook into the mummy's nose"
Catching his grey matter, they would have drawn it out piece by piece through his nostrils and then thrown it away. The brain was of no importance to ancient Egyptians, who believed that the heart controlled the body's physical and mental processes.
"Unlike the other mummies we've looked at, there's no packing in the skull," Filer remarks as she examines the scans.
Once they had taken the brain out, embalmers usually poured hot resin into the skull as a preservative and often filled the cavity with linen.

Was Artemidorus murdered?

Preserving mummies was a long and intricate process. Credit: izanbar
But as the scanner peers through the thick layers of outer bandages, something far more unusual shows up. Alusi points out eight straight linear fractures fanning out across the back of the skull.
 "Completely different from the wavy sutures you'd find in a normal skull," he explains, peering closer. "There's no sign of healing; they seem to be almost fresh," Filer adds. "What do you think?" Alusi is adamant: "If these didn't cause his death, then they happened very close to it. Someone or something has given him a brutal blow. "For a moment neither of them speaks. Have they uncovered an ancient murder?

Artemidorus returns to the museum

The British Museum houses many Ancient Egyptian artifacts. Credit: Michael Mulkens
After six hours in the machine, Artemidorus returns to the museum under cover of darkness, as intact as when he left. Others of his kind were not always so lucky. 19-century adventurers liked to goosepimple their guests by having a mummy unwrapped after dinner. One American entrepreneur, responding to a shortage of rags, bought mummies at less than three cents a pound, selling their bandages on to make meat-wrapping paper for butchers. Mark Twain said he saw stokers shovelling mummies into the furnaces of a steam engine.

Digitally reconstructing Artemidorus

Back at the Throat, Nose and Ear, the scans of Artemidorus have been digitised and loaded into an £800,000 supercomputer. Using a special program, they have written, Alusi and his colleagues begin to reconstruction screen the 700 scanned slices of the mummy, stacking them from toe to head. The software also turns a two-dimensional image 3D.
After three days Joyce Filer is staring at a virtual Artemidorus. Now they can spin him round and study him from all angles. They can peel away the bandages and take him apart bone by bone. Filer can see that his pelvis is not fully mature and his wisdom teeth are not fully developed, suggesting that Artemidorus was only in his early twenties when he died.

How did Artemidorus die?

How a mummy has been preserved can tell us a lot about how they died. Credit: Jalvear
But how did he die? She cannot hide her amazement when, easy as pushing open swing doors, the skull of the mummy opens on screen to reveal the shocking secret of the dark empty space within.
"Those fractures go right through to the inside," Alusi says as they study each one in minute detail.
"It looks like a bang on the back of the head with the proverbial blunt instrument!" Filer suggests. None of the other British Museum mummies has suffered such severe head in-juries. But is it enough to prove that the young man was murdered?
Joyce Filer talks through her findings with John Taylor, the mummies' curator and a world-leading expert on mummification.
"Maybe it was just a bad day at the embalmers," says Filer. She knows that mummies, especially the later ones like Artemidorus, were not always treated with much skill or reverence. "Even so, they must have slammed his head down on to an alabaster embalming table with incredible force. And the injuries must have happened before they wrapped him, otherwise the thick bandages would have cushioned the blow."

More mysteries are revealed about his mummification

Bandages like this one were used to bind mummies. Credit: Metropolitan Museum of Art
Then there is the riddle of his feet. Most mummies are wrapped with feet ankle to ankle, side by side. The soles of Artemidorus's feet are facing each other but his knees are tight together, a physical impossibility without binding or breaking bones. Yet, perplexingly, the scans reveal no signs of either.
Given the lack of flesh on his body, Filer reckons that the young man was in a severe state of decomposition when the embalmers finally got to him. Could his body have been trussed while waiting in line? John Taylor smiles. It's a theory too far. Like detectives, Egyptologists prefer to work with fact.

Mummies and the medical profession

While proof of how he died remains elusive, Artemidorus is helping Ghassan Alusi benefit the living from beyond the grave. Unlike living patients, a mummy can be exposed without harm to large amounts of radiation, which provide higher resolution images. This allows Alusi time to experiment with scanning techniques that could lead to earlier and more detailed diagnosis of ear problems. He can also try out several surgical techniques in virtual reality, thereby minimising risk to patients and reducing operating time.
"The ear is one of the most difficult environments in which to operate," Alusi explains. "In an area no bigger than a plum you have the carotid artery, cochlea, semi circularcanals, the facial nerves and a sinus, and all completely enclosed in bone.
"Mummies are now contributing to medical science as never before"
"Mummies are now contributing to medical science as never before. A major project at Manchester Museum is using tissue from mummified remains to find out more about the common Egyptian parasitic disease, schistosomiasis. With samples collected from mummies all round the world, it is hoped that the research may give doctors a better idea of how to treat the condition today.
Scientists in the US are also using DNA from mummies to study the evolution of tuberculosis, work that could provide insights into how to control the disease.

Artemidorus’ face revealed

More vital detective work still needs to be done. The other odd thing about Artemidorus's mummy case is the portrait of him painted in oil and wax on limewood and placed over his face.
Staring at us through big brown eyes and in three-quarter profile is the face of a beautiful young man with a long nose and large pale-pink lips. He looks more like one of the Romans, who by then were running his country, than an Egyptian. His dark-brown hair, in which he wears a gold-leaf wreath of leaves and berries, is brushed forward. His white tunic contrasts with his tanned skin.
Unlike mummies from earlier periods, the artist has used light, shade and perspective. This portrait looks so fresh it could have been painted yesterday and yet it is among the oldest known to man.

Bringing digital life to Artemidorus

sarcophagus
The faces painted on sarcophagi can only tell scientists so much about what the person inside used to look like. Credit: Walters Art Museum
"But is this what he really looked like?" Filer asks the medics. "Can a computer give us a better idea of the man inside?"
Brazilian bioengineer Joao Campos, whose PhD was on the analysis and measuring of faces, is the ideal man for the job. But as he stares into the screen he can see that most of the flesh has disappeared from the mummy's skull.
Fortunately, he can draw down data for the standard bone structure of a young man of Mediterranean origin and then add flesh to the mysterious face by adding 52 recognised landmark points. A bit like the contours on a map, these are used in facial reconstruction to show the depth and density of tissue round the eyes, nose, lower jaw and so on.
It is not long before the skull of Artemidorus is covered in computerised "flesh", but he still looks lifeless. Campos turns to the portrait. Ashe scans it into the computer, Artemidorus's face is reduced to millions of digits and then translated back into a full-colour portrait on screen. Now Campos begins to map the painting on to the blank face, stretching and pulling it like a rubber mask until it is moulded to the contours.
"Staring back at them is the real Artemidorus, in the form of a computer reconstruction"
Where the portrait is oval and small-chinned, the skull of Artemidorus is squat and square-jawed. Where the portrait is side-on and painterly, the scans are face on and scientific. After a few hours juggling and merging the two, Campos shows the results to John Taylor and Joyce Filer. It is a revelation. Staring back at them is the real Artemidorus.
By the time the mummies are back on display at the British Museum, they have told us a great deal about themselves. The scanners have revealed that, just like us, Ancient Egyptians suffered from arthritis and osteoporosis. Unlike us they had horrendous dental problems. Teeth ground down to stumps and abscesses were the result of eating bread fouled with grit and sand. Their temples might be breathtaking, but lung and other respiratory diseases were common killers lurking in their smoke-filled dwellings.

Artemidorus’ lasting impact

In front of Case 22 ranks of children are pressed to the glass. "It's spooky!" shudders one.
Right by Artemidorus's case is his computer reconstruction and an explanation of how he came by his new face. His features are stronger and heavier than his burial portrait.
Joyce Filer is convinced that he was from a Greek-Egyptian family, which would account for his robust Mediterranean looks and the inscription on his mummy case. However, what the scans reveal beyond all doubt is that the artist was a lot kinder to young Artemidorus than the embalmers or his ancient, unknown assassin.

This article is taken from the RD Archives from July 2000.
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