Unwrapping the medical messages of mummies

Canoptic jars were used by Ancient Egyptians to preserve the internal organs of their owner for the afterlife. These, and other relics, are on display at the exhibition Keystone

Bandaged corpses are so much more than fodder for dodgy Hollywood horror films. An exhibition in Zurich explains what they can tell us about our own health.

This content was published on December 9, 2011 minutes
Thomas Stephens in Zurich,

“Mummies, men, medicine, magic”, running at Zurich University’s Irchel Campus, is full of surprising – and often macabre – pieces of information about the preserved bodies, some of which are several thousand years old.

“When we have only skeletons we’re so limited – there are so many things we just can’t see,” Christina Warinner, who helped organise the exhibition, told

“Mummies give us more of a body to study. For example if we want to look at intestinal parasites, we need an intestine! If we want to look at pneumonia and influenza, we have to have lungs…”

Before seeing the actual corpses, which come from Egypt, Europe and Peru, visitors are presented with some history and background information, such as what actually counts as a mummy.

“Any human soft tissue that’s been preserved,” according to Warinner, who describes herself as an archaeo-geneticist, since her specialism is genetics but she works almost exclusively on ancient biomolecules.

Scientists distinguish between artificial mummies – as in Egypt – and natural mummies – as in freeze-dried figures such as Ötzi, the prehistoric man frozen in a glacier for more than 5,000 years (see related story), or the “bog bodies” found in northern Europe.

“The best way to produce a mummy is removing either all the moisture or oxygen so the bacteria can’t live,” she explained. “It’s all about halting bacterial growth.”

Egyptian model

Most people – and certainly most Hollywood producers – still equate mummies with characters such as the pharaoh Tutankhamun.

Mummy comes from the Latin word “mumia”, which itself came from the Persian word “mum”, meaning bitumen, a black viscous mixture of hydrocarbons.

“Bitumen was thought to be part of the mummification process in Egypt – so it’s not surprising that popular notions of mummies are based on an Egyptian model,” Warinner said.

After centuries of trial and error, the Egyptians eventually got pretty good at their art. Warinner says modern embalmers aren’t bad at temporary mummification, “but over the long term it’s not something we’ve perfected”.

“When Mao died, the scientists in charge of mummifying him rang the people who had done Lenin and asked for help. They eventually settled on a procedure that involved infusing Mao with a dilution of formaldehyde. The Chinese thought, well for Mao we’ve got to do much better than that, so they put in much more formaldehyde than was recommended – and he swelled up to the point of near bursting! They had to drain him again. It was a mess…”

Spice of death

The exhibition boasts various interactive elements such as microscopes looking at mummy cell tissue, a virtual autopsy which can be controlled by waving one’s hands around, and test tubes containing the various spices used on Egyptian mummies.

Visitors can take a good whiff of this “eau de pharaoh”, which includes bees’ wax, incense, cinnamon and onions.

“Egyptian mummies have an incredibly distinctive smell,” Wiranner said. “It’s incredibly stale. Mummies tend to have a somewhat allergy-inducing effect on me!”

She explained that one of the greatest challenges of putting on an exhibition like this was the security and insurance.

“Everything here is real – there are no replicas – but we’re very pleased with the results and being able to show the importance of mummies for clinical research in a public venue.”

CSI: Ancient Egypt

The Centre for Evolutionary Medicine at Zurich University’s Irchel Campus opened last year and is described by Warinner as “unique”.

“There are a number of institutions around the world that study ancient remains and evolutionary biology, but this is the first research institution of its kind that focuses on studying medicine using not only an evolutionary perspective but also ancient materials.”

She points out that there are many diseases today – some infectious, some congenital, some environmental – which are not fully understood. She cites the growing problem of obesity.

“Obesity is probably related to the fact that in the past when food was short certain genes were favoured that would store energy whenever possible. But now we have an abundant diet we have the opposite problem,” she said.

“So a lot of the diseases we have today are connected in some way to our evolutionary past, but it’s very hard to study that by using only modern samples. By using ancient samples, we can go back and test hypotheses in a really direct way.”

Brain drain

By now, swissinfo’s appetite had been whet for the actual mummies, kept in a darkened, tomb-like capsule.

First up is a wrapped Egyptian-style mummy from the Roman period. Another Egyptian mummy, this time unwrapped, shows what you would find inside: a skeleton, darkened by bitumen, partially covered by skin and papyrus on which prayers and instructions had been written.

“In the 19th century they had a lot of mummy unwrapping parties,” Warinner said. Apparently the Victorians would have people over and spend all evening unwrapping a mummy, a bit like pass the parcel.

There is also a Peruvian mummy – a teenager from about AD1200 – delicately balancing in a foetal position.

“In Europe we’ve tended to bury people flat on their back. In this area of Peru and many parts of South America and Mesoamerica, it’s quite common to bury people seated: it took up less space,” she said.

“Peruvian mummies, because they’re dehydrated in a cold environment, tend to have the best-preserved biomolecules.”

Unfortunately Ötzi – the daddy of European mummies – is too valuable to go on display, but the exhibition does have a tiny bone fragment belonging to him.

And there’s also a mummified brain from a child in France. “Biochemically, a brain is mostly made up of fats, so you wouldn’t really expect it to preserve, but under certain conditions they do,” Warinner said.

“We’re still working on what we can learn from old brains…”


Skin and dried flesh have been preserved by exposure to chemicals, extreme cold, very low humidity, or by lack of air when submerged. 

The best-known mummies are those that were embalmed for preservation, particularly those in ancient Egypt. This concerned not just humans but also crocodiles and cats.  

In China, preserved corpses have been recovered from wooden coffins found underwater and packed with medicinal herbs.  

Although Egyptian mummies are the most famous, the oldest found are the Chinchorro mummies (up to 7,000 years old) from northern Chile and southern Peru.

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Mummy exhibition

“Mummies, men, medicine, magic” runs at the Centre for Evolutionary Medicine at Zurich University’s Irchel Campus until January 8.

The institute opened in 2010 and studied, among other things, mummy tissue. Some of this research has now been displayed to the public.

The exhibition explains the cult of death in ancient Egypt and the various types of mummification. In addition to the magical aspects of mummies – as seen in countless Hollywood films – visitors also learn about modern scientific methods used when examining mummies.

CT scans and DNA analysis can diagnose the health of the person before they were mummified, look at eating habits and often determine the cause of death.

Visitors also gain an insight into the mummy lab and see 3D images of a thousand-year-old body and learn what all this means for our own future.

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