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Egyptian Mummies and Modern Science

July 2009 (113.3)

Book Review

Egyptian Mummies and Modern Science

Edited by Rosalie David. Pp. xxi + 304, figs. 43, color pls. 19. Cambridge University Press, New York 2008. $100. ISBN 978-0-521-86579-1 (cloth).

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In Egyptian Mummies and Modern Science, David and her University of Manchester colleagues present a scholarly, multidisciplinary compilation outlining the current state of biomedical research on and analytical investigation of Egyptian mummies.

After a succinct review of mummy studies prior to 1973, David elaborates on the development, function, and progress of the University of Manchester Egyptian Mummy Research Project, emphasizing from the start the importance of it being a multidisciplinary enterprise in which all investigators “speak each other’s perspective” (258). The book describes the team’s establishment of a methodology for investigation of mummified Egyptian remains, starting with the study of normal and pathological human anatomy. In this process, the team pioneered creative usage of a multitude of cutting-edge scientific, mostly noninvasive, techniques. From the mid 1990s, it became evident to David and her team that centralization of the worldwide collecting and cataloguing of finite resources of mummy materials was required, and the International Ancient Egyptian Mummy Tissue Bank was thus established. Further evolution of the Manchester projects resulted in the establishment of an exciting new graduate specialization at the university’s KNH Centre for Biomedical Egyptology: a master of science degree in biomedical and forensic studies in Egyptology.

This book targets primarily Egyptologists and those in the medical sciences, yet it has a much broader appeal to anyone interested in mummies or Egypt. It provides a history of the achievements and continuous growth of the Manchester Mummy Project and detailed accounts from experts of the Manchester team of their individual research, contributions to international study, and discussion of future projects. The information provided in each field is comprehensive and engaging with helpful cross-referencing among the authors and appropriate bibliography. The reader will easily follow the steps of endoscopic discovery, be updated on parasitic and bacterial DNA discoveries, and be compelled to agree that the foundations of pharmacotherapy were established in Early Dynastic Egypt. The photographic documentation of Schistosoma immunostaining by Rutherford (pls. 12, 14) and facial reconstructions by Wilkinson (figs. 32–6) are outstanding. But, as noted by the editor, uniformity in presentation of these subjects was not required of the respective authors, a decided weakness of the book as a whole. While all chapters are informative, their appeal for the intended readership varies. In some of the highly technical chapters, there is too much emphasis on the “how to,” thereby diminishing the excellent highlights of how these disciplines and techniques contribute to historical background and current investigations. It would have been good to fast-forward and condense those chapters.

The book is organized into five sections. The Egyptological background of mummification and a broad view of medicine in ancient Egypt are authoritatively presented and discussed by David in parts 1 and 3. Chapters emphasizing clinical, forensic, direct investigation, and analytic material studies are found in part 2 and to some extent in part 3. Parts 4 and 5 are devoted to the International Ancient Egyptian Mummy Tissue Bank, mummy preservation techniques, and biomedical Egyptology at the KNH Centre. Part 5 also entices the reader toward possibilities in tracing the evolution and development of specific diseases in Egypt and, potentially, globally.

I found the inclusion and sometimes the content of chapters in part 3 a bit confusing. Chapter 12, “The Ancient Egyptian Medical System” by David, for example, though informative and objective, is presented with the premise that the Manchester team’s new techniques have been used to diagnose disease and disease patterns, and that “[t]his evidence can now help Egyptologists and scientists to reassess the early translations of descriptions of disease, medical terms and words, and treatments that are listed in the Medical Papyri” (193). It is clear that the increasing knowledge in the field of ancient Egyptian pharmacy and the potential for detecting the existence of infectious and parasitic diseases in ancient Egypt will increase our knowledge of Egyptian medicine. As for the other expectations, it is left unclear.

In reference to the Edwin Smith Papyrus discussed in Davis’ chapter 12 (“The Ancient Egyptian Medical System” [nos. 188–90]), it must be mentioned that, although Breasted’s 1930 translation and publication of this ancient medical document was titled “The Edwin Smith Surgical Papyrus,” it is seen by most modern scholars, myself included, as a book of trauma, not of surgery. In fact, most current scholars (Westendorf, Bardinet, Nunn, Allen, Sanchez, Burridge) drop the word “Surgical” in their studies of the document. This contrasts with Davis’ appraisal and emphasis of the document as a treatise on surgery. This document (ca. 1650–1550 B.C.E.) is a didactic trauma treatise dealing primarily with cranial and spine trauma. It is justifiably considered by David as evidence of “the sophistication of medical knowledge in ancient Egypt” (189). The Edwin Smith papyrus has been considered to be free of magic, except for one incantation in case 9 of its 48 case histories (not in case 8, as the book states on page 183). In this regard, it should be stated that the use of magic in ancient Egyptian medicine cannot be equated with “irrational” medicine but rather as a set of concurrent, complementary views and practices in medical care (R. Ritner, The Mechanics of Ancient Egyptian Magical Practice, 4th ed. [Chicago 2008] nos. 4, 5). Furthermore, the incantation recited in case 9 provides, in my opinion, significant insight into ancient Egyptian physiopathological concepts referred to by the words wxdw (morbid principle) and mtw (conduits indispensable to body function). These Egyptian terms are discussed by Nunn (Ancient Egyptian Medicine [Norman 1996] nos. 61, 55 [respectively]) and addressed in this book by Miller (65) and David (186, 190).

Reflecting upon the development of this field of study, Aufderheide stated that “[t]he future of this discipline lies in the hands of training program directors who recognize how it came to be what it is today, and that its future—indeed its survival—will depend on the nurturing of its interdisciplinary soul” (The Scientific Study of Mummies [Cambridge 2003] 21). David and the Manchester research team personify this ideal, assuring that the dream of biomedical Egyptology fulfills its true potential into the 21st century. The book lends historical perspective, scholarly review, and enthusiasm for the future in this field.

Gonzalo M. Sanchez
University of Arizona Egyptian Expedition
Tucson, Arizona 85721-0067

Book Review of Egyptian Mummies and Modern Science, edited by Rosalie David

Reviewed by Gonzalo M. Sanchez

American Journal of Archaeology Vol. 113, No. 3 (July 2009)

Published online at

DOI: 10.3764/ajaonline1133.Sanchez

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