A team of scientists at Northwestern University are studying an ancient Egyptian mummy from the Roman era – and they’re using a groundbreaking technique that’s never been tried before. The mummified remains belong to a five-year-old girl who died 1,800 years ago. And, among other things, the researchers want to find out how the child died.
At the time the girl was alive, Egyptians, at least those of high birth, had been mummifying their dead for centuries. However, the way they did so during the Roman imperial era, specifically from about the 1st to the 3rd century A.D., had its own particular characteristics. The most striking of those was the practice of inserting a board with a painted likeness of the deceased over their face. But as we’ve said, the broader practice far predated this.
The earliest examples of Egyptian mummification that we know about date back about 4,800 years. But why did it happen at all? Well, the motivation for the practice was a religious belief in the idea that it would lead to a better life after death. As well as mummifying bodies, the Egyptians built incredibly elaborate tombs. And this culminated in the Great Pyramids of Giza, which were burial places for pharaohs.
By about 3,600 years ago, the Egyptians had advanced their expertise in mummification. Now, they had begun to eviscerate bodies while using various fluids to perfect the embalming process. In fact, we have quite detailed knowledge about the practice from the later Greco-Roman period – starting in the 4th century B.C. and lasting until the 4th century A.D. – because documentary evidence from that era exists.
Although we have that written evidence, though, it mostly deals with the ceremonial and religious practices rather than the practical mechanics of embalming and mummification. However, modern technology has enabled scientists to greatly increase their knowledge of the preservation techniques that were used by the ancient Egyptians on their dead.
Largely thanks to CT scanning of mummies, we now know about the basic steps used by the Egyptians in mummification. The first part of the process was to take out the internal organs, starting with the brain. A sharp object poked up through the nose broke up the brain, which would then liquefy and flow out.
Once the brain and other organs, such as the lungs, intestines and liver, had been removed, the body would then be cleaned out with a cocktail of palm wine and spices. The one organ that was left in place was the heart. This was because the Egyptians believed that was the organ where the conscious mind resides.
After the removal of those organs, the body would be dehydrated using a substance called natron – a mixture of chemicals including sodium bicarbonate and salt. This substance occurs naturally in Egypt at a place called Wadi Natrun, where it was extracted. Now all that would remain of the body were the muscles, hair and skin.
Subsequently, those involved in the process would have removed moisture from the internal organs as well. They then preserved those organs in separate and carefully closed containers – or, after wrapping, put them back inside the corpse. Next, the body itself would be wrapped in layers of linen, themselves enshrouding amulets to ward off evil spirits.
Finally, the whole thing would be coated with a layer of resin to prevent water damage from humidity. Then following this process, which usually took about 40 days, the mummy was ready to be placed in its tomb. A variety of objects that the deceased might need for the afterlife would also have been sealed inside the tomb.
But back to the mummy that researchers at Northwestern University have been studying. What is its particular history? Well, it was discovered in 1911 by Flinders Petrie, an eminent English archaeologist, when he was excavating a Roman burial ground at Hawara in Egypt. Petrie gifted the mummy to Lydia Beekman Hibbard because she had helped fund his work. She in turn then donated it to the Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary.
This mummy, called the Hibbard Mummy or Hawara Portrait Mummy No. 4, is one of among around 100 known as Fayum mummies – Hawara being located in the region of Fayum. Now these mummies from Egypt’s Roman era have a distinctive element: the pictures painted on panels placed to the front of the bodies’ faces. These paintings are considered some of the finest art to have been preserved from the Classical era.
Here we see the portrait that graces the Hibbard Mummy. Interestingly, although we know that the body inside the wrapping is that of a five-year-old girl, this picture appears to show someone a little older than that. Northwestern University professor Marc Walton speculates that the painting may depict an older relative – or perhaps what the little girl might have gone on to look like at a later age.
In any event, the Hibbard Mummy was put through a computed tomography (CT) scan at Northwestern Memorial Hospital in August 2017, confirming the child’s age to have been five. The scan also identified other areas for deeper research. And as a result, that second level of research has been carried out using the Advanced Photon Source synchrotron at the Argonne National Laboratory, about 20 miles from Chicago.
The Advanced Photon Source synchrotron is a high-energy particle accelerator. It can produce incredibly bright X-rays from a beam just 1/110th of an inch across. Usually, this machine is used for research into advanced physics; however, for the first time it has been brought into service to examine a mummy.
This high-tech method of studying the mummy meant that there was no need to disturb its actual material, which in any case the researchers did not have permission to do. Speaking to the Chicago Tribune, Professor Walton said, “We can’t do this with any other technique. We’re really pioneering new methods of looking at the intact objects without having to take an actual sample of them.”
Professor Walton also said, “That’s what we’re trying to do with all this analysis, to unpack who this person was. We’re trying to construct the narrative.” And after the scientists had spent 15 hours scanning the mummy, they found a considerable amount of new information inside it to analyze.
One of the things that the scientists were interested in was a lump set inside the mummy’s skull which had been revealed by the CT scan. The object may be made of ceramic, but initial results from the latest tests have not yet definitely identified its purpose. The X-rays also showed that there are wires inside the body’s teeth. However, an object wrapped on to the mummy’s abdomen remains a mystery.
What we do know is that the girl probably died of disease, as there are no apparent marks of injury on the body. Diseases that are likely to have killed a five-year-old of that era include smallpox, malaria and tuberculosis. Indeed, notably, at the time the girl died, as few as half of all children ever saw their tenth birthdays.
The Hibbard Mummy was put on display from January 2017 at Northwestern University’s Block Museum of Art in Chicago. Other mummies featuring portraits were also on show at the free exhibition. And the museum’s director, Lisa Corrin, told the Chicago Tribune that these portraits “look like us” and “remind us of our own mortality.” “When we see them, they look like people that we know,” Corrin added. “They have such potency.”