The Mummy Returns
"There's nothing on Earth like ... The Mummy!"
Amanda Smith: There's a whole genre of horror films about Egyptian mummies. And in the classic plot, the mummy comes to life, bandages flailing, as it kills and suffers and terrifies.
"Now I know these are the plans ... he's going to kill her, and make her a living mummy like himself."
But it's really the field of forensic Egyptology that's bringing mummies to life again, and in a far less threatening, spooky way.
This is The Body Sphere, back for another season. I'm Amanda Smith.
Jennifer Mann: You know, it's quite an extraordinary feeling when you get to the point where it really looks like someone.
Amanda Smith: A face emerges?
Jennifer Mann: A face does emerge. And this face that lived such a long time ago, it's spanning thousands of years, it's like touching the past in some way.
Amanda Smith: That's a sculptor who's doing a reconstruction of the head of a mummy, made possible by the advances in imaging technology and 3D printing.
And more on the mummy's head later in The Body Sphere.
But first let's pay a visit to the Victorian Institute of Forensic Medicine. This is where all sorts of medical analysis and investigation of bodies goes on, for the justice system, and for the coroner.
It's also where Dr Janet Davey is based. And Janet is a forensic Egyptologist. Now, what does a person with your job title do?
Janet Davey: I investigate child mummies, particularly child mummies, using CT scan data to determine sex, approximate age, any injuries post-mortem, ante-mortem—just before death—were they murdered or did they die of natural causes?
Amanda Smith: And how does that relate to the other forensic work that goes on here?
Janet Davey: Well, I use some of the methods that we use in disaster victim identification, because in the mortuary we have a CT scanner and all the bodies that come in are scanned. So there are protocols that I use that are the same or similar to the ones that are used in disaster victim identification.
Amanda Smith: And do all mortuaries in circumstances like this have CT scanners these days?
Janet Davey: No, we're very lucky. And it's excellent because some people—or some bodies—that probably don't need to be autopsied can be CT-scanned and passed back to the families. This is particularly good for religious groups that don't want to have autopsies.
Amanda Smith: It's also an excellent thing for your work of course, because it's a non-invasive way to look at what's inside a mummy.
Janet Davey: Yes, that's exactly right, because mummies are a finite resource, so we don't want to investigate them using invasive methods. We want to have something that will leave the mummy intact, as the technology improves.
Amanda Smith: So the better imaging gets, the better it is for you.
Janet Davey: Absolutely. A lot of people around the world are working on fine-tuning the images for medical purposes on the living, and we benefit from that. Recently I've seen some new images of some of my mummies that have shown me much more detail, so it makes it easier to read what's within the body and which organs are in place. Because sometimes it's difficult to determine which organs are still there, because they've been dried out and they've shrunk. So yes, new imaging techniques, that's what I'm really keen on seeing.
Amanda Smith: What can you see in CT-scanning a mummy that you couldn't see by x-raying it?
Janet Davey: You get a very fine detail. And a good example of this is a little mummy that we call Winnie, from the British Museum, who was x-rayed in the 1960s. The researchers thought it was a boy, but when we CT-scanned it we discovered that what they thought was the penis was actually an inclusion of something that could have been an internal organ or some packing of some sort.
And also with the CT scan, the data's loaded into an advance visualisation workstation, so I can manipulate the data and I can go inside the body and look from inside out. So I can see if the brain's still there and look at the structure of the body as well.
So it's far superior. But that doesn't devalue the early x-rays, because they're valuable for me so that I can see what's inside the wrappings and then decide whether it's worth actually CT-scanning the body. Because you don't want to put a wrapped so-called body in a CT scan and discover it's just full of mud and you can't see anything. That's just a waste of time and a waste of resources.
Amanda Smith: As Janet Davey is suggesting, mummies don't always contain what you expect them to. More on that in a moment. But why, for what reason, did ancient Egyptians mummify their dead?
Jana Jones: Well, preservation of the body for the afterlife was absolutely central to ancient Egyptian religion and their concepts of the afterlife.
Amanda Smith: Jana Jones is an Egyptologist and mummification expert.
Jana Jones: They believed that the body itself lives on after death, but to do this it has to be intact and lifelike.
Amanda Smith: And what, then, did the process involve?
Jana Jones: Well, the ancient Egyptians didn't leave us much information on the process. The most that we know about the actual process is from the classical writer Herodotus, who visited Egypt in about 450 BC.
In general, first the body was washed to ritually purify it, and then it was placed on a sloping bier in the embalming tent so that the ‘mummy juices’, as the French call them, could drain off. The brain was removed generally through the nose, although this varies at different times. The viscera—the liver, the lungs, intestines and stomach—were removed through an incision in the left flank. The heart was supposed to be left inside, but modern technology and imaging techniques have caught out some embalmers where the heart is missing. And often the dried-up brain has also been found inside the cranium.
Amanda Smith: So after organs have or haven't been removed, how is the body then dried?
Jana Jones: It's basically desiccated by being covered in natron, which is a naturally occurring salt found in the Egyptian salt lakes. This, Herodotus said, was for 40 days. And modern experimentation has shown that yes, 40 days is the optimum period. And after that the body cavities were rinsed with palm wine and spices, and finally the outside of the body was anointed with resins and fragrant oils. Hairstyles were created, sometimes false eyes were inserted, makeup was applied, and finally the body was ritually wrapped.
Amanda Smith: So now who did the mummification, Jana, was it a profession?
Jana Jones: Well, it was a profession, and it was also an industry. We can't forget that. We don't know much about them, again, because the ancient Egyptians were very cagey about this. It was a secret society. The Greek texts identified two different groups: the so-called incision-maker or ripper-up, and the pickler.
Amanda Smith: Wow!
Jana Jones: Yes…[laughs] well, they were the two processes, the two main processes involved. Now, I just must add that the embalming tents would have been thoroughly stomach-churning, especially in the heat of summer when there were large numbers of bodies in various stages of preparation. But also, as an industry, mummification was also subject to rorts and irregularities. Radiography has shown us that some bodies were robbed of jewels and amulets before being wrapped. Some had embalming tools left inside, while others had little creatures like mice, lizards and bugs wrapped up in the bindings.
Amanda Smith: You're listening to The Body Sphere, with Amanda Smith, broadcast, podcast and online, and a program about forensic Egyptology.
Janet Davey: So there are odd things that happen. There's one mummy here in Australia, in Melbourne, that has an adult toe bone in the cranial cavity, and some linen—so what is that doing there?
Amanda Smith: You haven't been able to work it out?
Janet Davey: No. We've no idea why it's there. The only thing I can think of is possibly someone's tried to push the linen in with an adult toe bone and gone, whoops it's disappeared. This is the mystery, this is what I love about mummies, because you find something and you think, 'How on earth did that happen?' And quality control, we don't know, because once the body was delivered to the family they wouldn't be unwrapping the body to check that everything was done properly.
Amanda Smith: Well, before CT scanning, the only way to really have a look at the body inside the mummy wrappings was to unwrap them. In the 19th and into the 20th centuries a mummy unwrapping was often presented, as I understand it, as a kind of public spectacle.
Janet Davey: Yes, absolutely. People were invited to it. Sometimes it was a soiree where one could come in one's best clothes. I see it as almost a 'Let's come and have a cocktail party and afterwards we'll unwrap a mummy’. Which is dreadful.
Amanda Smith: Do you think it's those sorts of unveilings that contributed to that whole genre of horror movies that started pretty early in the 20th century, you know, The Mummy, The Mummy's Hand, The Mummy's Curse?
Janet Davey: Oh yes, definitely. And there are people who won't go anywhere near a mummy in a museum. In fact my mum, I think, might be one of them.
Amanda Smith: Your mum won't go near mummies!
Janet Davey: [Laughs] Yes. She's not that keen on ancient Egypt. But the image of the mummies walking through, terrifying people, with bits of bandages trailing behind is something that still terrifies people.
Amanda Smith: Where do you get your mummies from?
Janet Davey: Six of the mummies that I've studied are British Museum mummies, so I travel to London and the British Museum has been very, very supportive of my work. We've CT-scanned three mummies in Australia. One's in Sydney in the Nicholson Museum, and two are here in the Australian Institute of Archaeology.
Amanda Smith: Now, one of the things I understand that you're working on at the moment too is a head that's at Melbourne University. Tell us about that.
Janet Davey: Yes, it's a mummified head of a female, maximum age probably about 35. We can only do approximate ages for adults, once their wisdom teeth come in.
Amanda Smith: Why is it just a head?
Janet Davey: Well, in the days when people went to Egypt—and they still do—they collect souvenirs. But in the 1800s, possibly even the 1900s - 1800s, 1700s - they often brought back a mummy. But to bring back an adult mummy you need a very large case. So what appears to have happened is that the bodies were decapitated and an adult's head or a child's head can fit very easily into a trunk, a travelling trunk. And it's very sad, because the respect for the dead was ignored.
Amanda Smith: That head now, very respectfully, is being brought back to life, in a manner of speaking, with a combination of science and art.
And in The Body Sphere this now involves a visit to the studio of Jennifer Mann, in the foothills of the Macedon Ranges in Victoria.
Jennifer's a portrait sculptor and she's working on something right now that I want you to hear about. Jennifer, what is this that you're creating?
Jennifer Mann: Well, what you're looking at now is called facial reconstruction sculpture. So what I've done is I've started with a skull that's a 3D print, and there's another copy of that 3D print over there. So it is actually a very detailed replica of a skull that is underneath a wrapped mummy.
Amanda Smith: So you've used the 3D-printed skull, you're using that to model on, is that right?
Jennifer Mann: The forensic facial reconstruction method uses skulls. And I traditionally I think originally they would have used real skulls, but now of course technology's at a point where really there's no need to, we can just really create things with 3D scans.
Amanda Smith: All right, so take me through the reconstruction process.
Jennifer Mann: Okay, well it might be…just excuse me a second and I'll grab that one over there. So I've got the second 3D print. The process involves putting a number of tissue depth markers, so they're little markers like…using these little rubber…
Amanda Smith: So it's like a little plug.
Jennifer Mann: Yes. And they're cut into lengths according to tissue depth data which is gathered for different populations. So in this case, for ancient Egyptian mummies, the tissue depth data that I'm using was formulated I think in 2001. So these tissue markers are placed at what are called landmarks across the skull, and so you can see them—I've left them sort of near the surface so that I can see them.
Amanda Smith: What sort of clay is this?
Jennifer Mann: This is oil-based clay. The one that I'm using is a very soft clay, so you can work around the tissue depths without bumping them.
But the tissue depths are really important for this work, because it really is not me just making up a face, it's me creating something that's already there on the skull. And it's quite an extraordinary feeling when you get to the point where it really looks like someone…
Amanda Smith: Where a face emerges?
Jennifer Mann: A face does emerge. And you know that you're not just making it up.
Amanda Smith: Yes, but how much does the skull determine what any of us look like, what this mummy from ages ago looks like? Is there subjectivity still involved in a reconstruction?
Jennifer Mann: Well, the nose is made according to calculations about how far the nose projects out, according to how wide the nasal aperture on the skull is. And the eyes can only sit within the bony orbits. So the basics of it is going to be individual, specific to each individual person.
Amanda Smith: What you can't really know, I suppose, definitively, is eye colour. Or, the lips maybe?
Jennifer Mann: Well, I've thought about the lips too. I think the subjectivity is actually how the lips are rendered. But there's a calculation that you do for the width of the lips
Amanda Smith: What's that instrument you've just picked up?
Jennifer Mann: So this is a little Boley calliper. These callipers are specifically—I think it's a dental tool. The width of the mouth is generally calculated on the position of the teeth.
Amanda Smith: So describe to me this person who's emerging under your hands.
Jennifer Mann: Well, it's a female. She's an ancient Egyptian, and from what I see she's in pretty good shape. I was surprised when this face emerged that she had specific features, like the eyes were very large and at a certain angle, and she had a slight overbite which means that the top lip in particular is quite full.
We had some suggestion from the CAT scan…I should explain, apart from the 3D print of the skull that we had, the CAT scan can give you some images which suggest some flesh. The flesh is kind of dried, but things like the ear, we were very lucky to get an image. And ears are one thing that are of great mystery usually in all of this sort of work. You just don't have the ears, and often a generic ear will be put on. But you can see those pictures over there, Amanda, up on the wall, there is a suggestion of the ear, kind of the angle that it was. And you need to take into consideration that the mummy's been wrapped, and so a lot of the features have been pressed in towards the head and so on. So this is my interpretation, then, of what that mummified flesh might have looked like in life.
Amanda Smith: She's quite lovely, actually, she's a beautiful woman. What do you think?
Jennifer Mann: Well, I do too. I was surprised when it emerged. She is. It's a very nice, delicate face. Now, having said that, I think there's often a tendency for people to think that a sculptor can just make up a face, like this tendency to want to beautify something. All I can say is that I have not tried to do that, and I've been very careful to stick to tissue depths and so on to make sure I haven't veered to improve her or beautify her in any way. She is quite a lovely face, but that is what she was.
Amanda Smith: So now, Jennifer, how did you get into this and learn how to do it, how does it relate to your work as a portrait sculptor?
Jennifer Mann: Oh, well a couple of years ago I saw advertised on an online sculpting group that I'm a member of, a class run by Karen Taylor who's a very well-known expert in the US in this work, in this field of forensic reconstruction.
Such an interesting thing to do. We were given, in the class—there might have been about ten people—we were each given a skull to do of a person. Most of them were murder victims.
We had a week to learn the process and build it up, and then at the end of that time we were shown a picture of the person in life. So we could determine how close or how far off the rendering was. It was quite startlingly similar. It was really amazing to see how close that first one that I did was to the photograph of the person.
Amanda Smith: Well Jennifer, thank you very much for inviting me in to your studio, and showing this head that you've reconstructed…well, it's still a work in progress, isn't it. How much more work have you got to do on her?
Jennifer Mann: Oh, there's quite a bit of work to get her to the stage to be a museum exhibit, actually. So when this is finished I'll need to cast it in resin and then paint it.
Amanda Smith: Are you going to give her hair?
Jennifer Mann: Yeah, actually the hair is a really interesting part of this, because she will have a hairstyle like that, see I've got these photos of an actual mummified woman from the Pharaonic period and she has natural hair. It was dark brown and bunched into little braids, little plaits, a bunch on either side of the head, going down behind the ears. So I'm going to recreate this. I'm in discussion with hairdressers who are experts in this braiding technique and there are people that can do it. So I'm quite excited about that. I think it's important to make it look natural and make her look as much as possible like she may have looked in life.
Amanda Smith: It's amazing work.
Jennifer Mann: It's very interesting work. The thing that amazes me, even sitting here every day, is I'm actually looking at a face that lived such a long time ago—sort of spanning thousands of years. It's like touching the past in some way.
Amanda Smith: And updates of Jennifer Mann's reconstruction of this mummified head will be on the Melbourne University Anatomy Museum website. There's a link to that on The Body Sphere page of the RN website.
Now, Jana Jones has touched the past in another way, by analysing very ancient Egyptian textiles. Because it's understood that mummification developed out of noticing how bodies naturally desiccate when they're buried in hot, dry desert sand. But Jana's research shows that the practice of artificial, ritualised mummification began much earlier, about 2,000 years earlier than previously thought.
Jana Jones: Yes, yes well in the prehistoric period the ancient Egyptians were already experimenting with preservation of the body. It wasn't the whole body, it was only certain parts of the body. But they already had empiric knowledge of what was necessary to preserve the body.
Amanda Smith: And how did you work this out?
Jana Jones: Look, it was a process of deduction, persistence, dogged detective work and good science on the part of my collaborator, a biochemist who identified the components of the embalming substances that I'd found on 6,000-year-old funerary textiles.
Amanda Smith: And what were they?
Jana Jones: Well, they had been sent to the Bolton Museum in the UK about 80 years ago by the excavators of two sites, Badari and Mostagedda, and these are the earliest burials that we know in ancient Egypt. They date to around about 4500 to 4000 BC. So I arrived there with my microscope and nobody had looked at these textiles for 80 years. And I can tell you, it was that Eureka moment when I looked through the microscope and yes, there was resin in the textiles.
Amanda Smith: So that's evidence of mummification, of embalming.
Jana Jones: Yes, because what we've always believed is that the predynastic bodies, prehistoric bodies, were just wrapped and placed into the sand, as you have said, and naturally desiccated.
Amanda Smith: But your work shows that it wasn't just natural desiccation.
Jana Jones: No, because resin has antibacterial properties that we didn't expect the prehistoric Egyptians to have any idea about. The biochemical analysis of these substances on the textiles showed that they were complex, heated recipes. They weren't just an odd mixture of substances. So it wasn't just any old random mix. And it shows that they already had an empiric knowledge of the science involved in the preparation of preservative balms.
Amanda Smith: Jana Jones is an Egyptologist and mummification expert at Macquarie University.
You also heard from forensic Egyptologist Janet Davey from Monash University, who's based at the Victorian Institute of Forensic Medicine, and the portrait sculptor Jennifer Mann, each of them involved in bringing mummies back to life, metaphorically, with science, and with art.
And Jennifer Mann's finished reconstruction of the head of a young woman, mummified thousands of years ago, along with the 3D print of the skull and the actual mummified head, will be on display at the Anatomy Museum of Melbourne University for their Open Day on the 21st of August.
I'm Amanda Smith. This is The Body Sphere.
© Australian Broadcasting Corporation