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Diagnosing the diseases of the Ancient Egyptians
Tuesday 11 August 2003 11.00-11.30am

Aubrey Manning returns to Egypt to find out about an ambitious project that hopes to unearth the diseases suffered by the Ancient Egyptians. We know that Tutankamun possibly died from a severe blow to the head from x-rays that were done in the 1960s, but what can new scientific techniques tell us? Is it possible that diseases such as atherosclerosis (furred-up arteries) are not as modern as we think?

Tutankamun mask
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The knowledge of disease in Ancient Egypt comes from papyri and tomb paintings. There are pictures of men with withered legs which could possibly represent polio, and dwarfism is an incredibly important condition to have, if you go by the poems written about certain members of the Pharoah’s court. Before now, there have only been a few major studies on the mummies found in Egypt. In 1912, Edwin Smith drew pictures and photographed of all the mummies he could find and made assumptions about their sex, age, and possible diseases or cause of death. In the 1960s, a big project was undertaken to x-ray each mummy in order to find out more. Now, Dr Zahi Hawass, the Head of Egyptian Antiquities in Egypt wants to CT scan every mummy in the country in order to get a better and more conclusive picture of the diseases these people lived and died with.

The CT Scan (Computed Tomography Imaging) gives a 3d picture of the mummy and is able to show the body slice by slice. The scans can be rotated on an axis to show a different view. This scanning also means that the mummy does not have to be unwrapped in order to examine it so intimately.

Diseases can be hereditary and the project could shed light on familial relations. Could we find out if Akhenaten – the “heretic king” really suffered from Marfan’s Syndrome? We don’t actually know where his mummy is at present, but information from the scans could shed light on this hereditary disease and point to other members of his family. Or it could confirm that his odd characteristics of enlarged hips and full breasts were actually artistic portrayal of a deity representing both the male and female physical attributes. It might be a while before we can find out if various unnamed mummies are actually pieces in the jigsaw of the royal lineage but it could certainly give some clues towards a more concrete answer.

To scan all the mummies in Egypt might sound like quite an easy undertaking, but some of these mummies are in a very poor condition and the location of others is simply unknown. Aubrey Manning went to Cairo to see for himself, just how they intend to test these mummies, what they think they’ll find and whether this project can give a definitive picture of diseases in everyday life – not just in the royal palace.
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