Science

Egyptian mummy ‘doesn’t match the name on 3,000-year-old coffin’

In a potentially ancient case of mistaken identity, a new study reveals that an Egyptian mummy likely wasn’t the person named on the front of its coffin. 

Aussie scientists performed computerised tomography (CT) scans and radiocarbon dating on the mummy and coffin, currently housed at the University of Sydney. 

The mummified female body dates as far back as the year 1200 BC, while the coffin in which the mummy resides was constructed in the year 1000 BC, they found. 

The body may have been inserted by a crafty Egyptian dealer into what was at the time an empty coffin at some point during the 19th century, just before it was bought for the university. 

Analysis also reveals a ‘rare’ painted mud carapace enclosing the adult mummy – a hard resinous shell used to protect the body within its wrappings.

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Mummified individual and coffin in the Nicholson Collection of the Chau Chak Wing Museum, University of Sydney. An Egyptian mummy has been revealed not to be the noblewoman named on the coffin it was found in

‘The date of the individual is earlier than that of the coffin,’ say the team of researchers, led by Dr Karin Sowada from Macquarie University, Sydney, Australia, in their paper.

‘Local dealers likely placed an unrelated mummified body in the coffin to sell a more complete “set”, a well-known practice in the local antiquities trade.’

The mummified individual and coffin are currently in the Nicholson Collection of the new Chau Chak Wing Museum, which opened to the public in November last year, on the University of Sydney’s main campus. 

Sir Charles Nicholson, an English explorer who spent much of his career in Australia during the 19th century, bought the mummified body, lidded coffin and mummy board as a set during a trip to Egypt in between 1856 and 1867.

In 1860, Sir Nicholson donated it to the University of Sydney and two years later returned to live in England.

The coffin inscription on the lid identifies the owner as a titled woman named Meruah, and the iconography dates it to approximately 1000 BC. 

‘The date of the coffin has been established through analysis of the coffin shape, design and decoration,’ Dr Sowada told MailOnline. 

‘It is a well-known type from the Theban area of Egypt (region of modern Luxor).’

Although the mummified individual underwent a full computed tomography (CT) scan in 1999, the authors rescanned the body for their current study using updated technology.

Using this new visualisation of the teeth and skeleton, the authors determined the mummified individual was a fairly young adult, aged between 26 and 35 years.

3D-rendered CT images of mummified individual, courtesy of Chau Chak Wing Museum and Macquarie Medical Imaging

3D-rendered CT images of mummified individual, courtesy of Chau Chak Wing Museum and Macquarie Medical Imaging

Image from the research paper published in open-access journal PLOS ONE shows fragments of the 'rare' mud carapace

Image from the research paper published in open-access journal PLOS ONE shows fragments of the ‘rare’ mud carapace

Body scans did not reveal external genitalia and internal reproductive organs had been removed during the mummification process.

However, ossified secondary sexual characteristics, including hip bones, jaw, and cranium, strongly suggest the mummified individual was female, challenging the finding of a 2005 study that identified the mummy as a male from DNA.

‘Our specialist research team is confident of the identification of the sex as female based on the skeletal characteristics seen on the new scans outlined in the paper,’ Dr Sowada told MailOnline. 

‘The DNA test was conducted over 20 years ago and much has changed in this area since.

‘Thus, given the opinion of our team, we must face the possibility that there was a problem with the earlier DNA result.’ 

Analysis of the mummification technique and radiocarbon dating of textile samples from the linen wrappings placed the mummified individual to somewhere between the years 1200 to 1113 BC. 

This makes it likely that the female lived during the 20th Dynasty of Egypt – the third and last dynasty of the Ancient Egyptian New Kingdom period.  

Sir Charles Nicholson (pictured) bought the mummified body, lidded coffin, and mummy board as a set during a trip to Egypt in 1856-7, donating it to the University of Sydney in 1860

Sir Charles Nicholson (pictured) bought the mummified body, lidded coffin, and mummy board as a set during a trip to Egypt in 1856-7, donating it to the University of Sydney in 1860

Chau Chak Wing Museum on the University of Sydney's main campus, which houses the mummy, opened to the public in November last year

Chau Chak Wing Museum on the University of Sydney’s main campus, which houses the mummy, opened to the public in November last year

The new scans also revealed the extent and nature of the mud carapace, showing the mud shell fully sheaths the body and is layered within the linen wrappings. 

Images of the inmost layers indicate the body was damaged relatively shortly after initial mummification, and the mud carapace and additional wrappings were applied to reunify and restore the body. 

In addition to its practical restorative purpose, the authors suggest the mud carapace was a much cheaper way of replicating burial practices of the wealthy. 

It gave those who cared for the deceased the chance to ’emulate elite funerary practices’ of coating the body in an expensive imported resin shell, but instead making use of cheaper and locally available materials.

Though this mud carapace treatment has not been previously documented, the authors note it’s not yet possible to determine how frequent this treatment may have been for non-elite mummies in the late New Kingdom of ancient Egypt.

Therefore, further radiological studies on other non-royal mummies may reveal more about this practice, researchers say. 

‘The mud shell encasing the body of a mummified woman within the textile wrappings is a new addition to our understanding of ancient Egyptian mummification,’ they write in their paper, published in the journal PLOS ONE.  

EMBALMING THE DEAD IN ANCIENT EGYPT

It is thought a range of chemicals were used to embalm and preserve the bodies of the dead in ancient cultures. 

Russian scientists believe a different balm was used to preserve hair fashions of the time than the concoctions deployed on the rest of the body.

Hair was treated with a balm made of a combination of beef fat, castor oil, beeswax and pine gum and with a drop of aromatic pistachio oil as an optional extra.

Mummification in ancient Egypt involved removing the corpse’s internal organs, desiccating the body with a mixture of salts, and then wrapping it in cloth soaked in a balm of plant extracts, oils, and resins.  

Older mummies are believed to have been naturally preserved by burying them in dry desert sand and were not chemically treated.  

Gas chromatography/mass spectrometry (GC/MS) techniques have been deployed in recent years in find out more about the ancient embalming process. 

Studies have found bodies were embalmed with: a plant oil, such as sesame oil; phenolic acids, probably from an aromatic plant extract; and polysaccharide sugars from plants.

The recipe also featured dehydroabietic acid and other diterpenoids from conifer resin.


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