From the time of the medieval crusades (when they were first adopted as a source of medicine) up until the start of the 20th century, ancient Egyptian mummies were considered utilitarian and multipurpose objects. In addition to providing medicinal ingredients, their many uses ranged from plant fertiliser to fuel, but over time they also started to be viewed by travellers and lovers of antiquities as curiosities and valuable souvenirs of trips to Egypt. At the same time, these mummies began to attract the interest of scientists, and in 1896 they were used to test one of the most significant inventions of the 19th century – the X-ray device.
These early X-rays took considerable time to carry out, making mummies the ideal ‘patients’ for tests, as they could be relied on to remain motionless. Since the first tests in the 19th century, numerous mummies have been examined using X-rays, including the embalmed bodies of multiple pharaohs, yielding fascinating new information about their lives. The later invention of computed tomography (CT) provided another new technique that made it possible to study the bodies in greater detail, even offering a view of the faces of the deceased, without irreversibly damaging the integrity of the mummies.
These widely applied medical procedures have now become standard methods in the toolbox of modern archaeologists. They offer a fast and non-invasive way to carry out digital autopsies – exposing the hidden body without damaging the bandages, and revealing the wide array of objects, amulets, and jewellery sent with the deceased into the afterlife, as well as identifying organs, filling materials, and foreign objects through digital endoscopies. There are also other non-invasive and invasive research methods available for the study of mummies that involve, for example, 3D printing and taking samples.
The Warsaw Mummy Project, founded in 2015, aims to develop a new, systematic, and universal approach for non-invasive mummy research, using a multidisciplinary approach to determine which of the available methods are most effective and have the greatest potential for future research. The project draws on the achievements and experiences of predecessors in the field and previous studies of mummies in Polish collections.
In December 2015, the project carried out X-ray and CT scanning of a collection of mummies from the National Museum in Warsaw at the Affidea clinic in Otwock, near Warsaw, using a portable unit Optima XR220amx made by General Electric. Each of the mummies received several sets of X-ray cross-sections, created by Philips CT Big Bore, which allowed for CT visualisations as well. Each set of the mummies’ tomographic slices started at a different point, which allowed them to be combined into a single high-resolution model. Moreover, pantomographic images of the mandibles and maxillae of several individuals were obtained using the same equipment, providing much more data than the plain surface CT. It is hoped that further cooperation with General Electric will allow the project to produce high-quality models and extract even more information about the mummies in the future.
So far, only non-invasive research methods have been applied, but further studies will require more invasive approaches, such as the extraction of micro-samples, to disclose additional details about what is underneath the mummies’ wrappings. The project aims to discover information about the age and sex of the deceased, their causes of death, and the state of their health, to name just a few of the most important questions, but each mummy has a unique story and requires an individual approach.
Collection for research
The collection of Egyptian antiquities in the National Museum in Warsaw, which forms the basis for the Warsaw Mummy Project’s research, was created mainly through donations from private individuals who brought objects back from their travels along the Nile in the 19th century and presented them to the University of Warsaw. In 1917 and 1918, the university loaned these objects to the National Museum, where they are still kept today. After the Second World War, the museum received several more mummies as donations or loans from other organisations, including UNESCO and the Ethnographic Museum in Warsaw.
The assemblage of embalmed ancient Egyptian individuals in the National Museum in Warsaw consists of 19 objects, including whole human mummies, as well as body parts such as hands, feet, and heads, bundles of bandages, and closed containers, in addition to around 20 animal mummies that are currently under investigation by Kamila Braulin´ska as another part of the Warsaw Mummy Project. The ongoing study of the human mummies, their coffins, and archival materials has made it possible to establish their provenances in some cases, revealing that most date to the 1st millennium BC, with several of them originating in Thebes.
One of the first – and most spectacular – discoveries of the Warsaw Mummy Project was a mummy originally thought to be a male priest, which was actually revealed to be a pregnant woman (see CWA 108). One of two complete adult human mummies in the collection, this mummy (MNW 236805/3) has now been dubbed ‘The Mysterious Lady’.
In addition to confirming the sex of the individual as female and identifying the foetus in her womb, X-ray analysis revealed several features, including an object placed over the navel, that indicate the Mysterious Lady belongs to the Ptolemaic era, most likely during the 1st century BC. The analysis also provided more information about the mummification techniques used, including evidence of a cut in the lower left abdomen through which the viscera were removed and then returned to the abdominal cavity in four bundles. The wear and development of teeth indicates that the individual was between 20 and 30 years old at the time of her death, while the foetus was found to be 26-30 weeks old. Perhaps the most significant discovery was the fact that the womb had not been disturbed during the mummification process.
Other finds made by the Warsaw Mummy Project include the discovery of several interesting amulets and pieces of jewellery in a number of the mummies. Of particular note is a scarab found in the area of the heart of the mummy of Panepy from Thebes, dating to the 22nd Dynasty (825-715 BC). This mummy is also a fine example of very skilled embalming techniques and high-quality cartonnage that is still protecting the body of its original owner.
You can find out more about the Warsaw Mummy Project’s research and some of the mummies that have been studied through an engaging website that was created by Grey Group company: http://www.warsawmummyproject.com/en.
FURTHER READING W Ejsmond, M Oz.arek-Szilke, M Jaworski, and S Szilke (2021) ‘A pregnant ancient Egyptian mummy from the 1st century BC’, Journal of Archaeological Science.
TEXT: Marzena Oz.arek-Szilke, Marcin Jaworski, Wojciech Ejsmond, and Stanisl´aw Szilke.