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  • Educator Len Bloch
  • Animator Nadav Arbel
  • Sound Designer Stephen LaRosa
  • Artist Shahar Kober

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If ancient Egyptian mummies could talk, they would tell us a lot about life and death in both the ancient and modern worlds. Ancient Egypt was a complex society, with Pharaohs, merchants, peasants and slaves. The rich could afford elaborate mummification rituals, while less wealthy people underwent simpler procedures. Ancient Egyptian mummification was practiced for thousands of years, and methods changed over time. The lesson describes how a rich person might have been mummified about 100 years before Alexander the Great invaded Egypt.

The ancient Greek historian Herodotus described mummification as he understood it to be practiced in his time. Read Herodotus’ “The Histories,” then for a specific excerpt containing his description of mummification, click here. Very few mummifications were exactly as Herodotus described, but his description seems on the whole accurate, and it has become the standard picture. One of the best ways to learn more about mummification is to use ancient Egyptian techniques. Two modern researchers mummified a human body using the methods described by Herodotus. This provided great insight into the process and filled in a lot of details missing from Herodotus’s account.

Decomposition is a complex process, and no two decaying corpses are exactly alike. Still, the process can be understood by thinking of these five stages:

1) Fresh: Decomposition starts instantly, as the normal cellular processes of enzymatic breakdown continue, and the bacteria living in and on the body continue to consume food and reproduce. Flies and other insects quickly arrive, and lay their eggs on the corpse.
2) Bloat: As the bacteria continue to consume the corpse, they produce gases that make the body swell and become frothy. The insect eggs grow into maggots, and these eventually eat their way out of the corpse. The skin ruptures, and the gases escape producing a strong odor.
3) Active decay: The maggots and other decomposers are rapidly consuming the body, and the strong odor persists. The stage ends when the maggots are ready to become mature flies.
4) Advanced decay: Insect activity is reduced, but nutrients continue to leech into the surrounding area. If the body is resting on soil, the nutrient levels get so high that most plants die.
5) Dry remains: Eventually soil nutrient levels return to normal, and plant growth resumes. Often the only visible remains of the corpse are dry bones and skin.

The study of ancient diseases provides insight on history, and it helps us understand how patterns of disease change over time. Often it raises more questions than it answers. Visit National Geographic’s: 8 Mummy Finds Revealing Ancient Disease for more information.

In the modern world, tuberculosis is often associated with crowded living conditions such as urban slums. Has tuberculosis always been a part of human life, or is it a disease of crowding? Genetic evidence suggests that the bacteria that cause tuberculosis was carried by small bands of humans as they spread from Africa around 40,000 years ago, long before the first villages or cities. But evidence from Egyptian mummies suggests that the disease didn’t appear in the Nile Valley until the rise of large complex kingdoms about 5000 years ago. No one knows how to reconcile these two contradictory pieces of evidence.

Many people consider cancer a disease of modernity, caused by chemical pollution or the stress of modern life. But is this true? Cancer seems to have been rare in Egyptian mummies– even among the elderly. Many scientists conclude that cancer was less common in the ancient world than it is today. Others argue that without modern medicine, ancient Egyptians rarely died of advanced cancer, and often succumbed to early stage cancers hadn’t yet spread to the bones, and therefore weren’t preserved in mummies.

For now, the mummies won’t reveal their secret knowledge about the origins of diseases like tuberculosis and cancer. But scientists have ways to make them talk.
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