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Harvard Medicine

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How to Unwrap the Secrets of a Mummy

Photo courtesy of the <em>American Journal of Neuroradiology</em>

Find a mummy.

In 1915, a joint expedition of Harvard University and the Boston Museum of Fine Arts found mummified remains in the burial chamber of Djehutenakht (“Jeh-HOO-teh-nocked”), a governor in Egypt’s Middle Kingdom, and his wife.

Lose the body (not recommended).

At some point in the previous 4,000 years, the chamber had been looted, with one mummy stolen and the other dismembered. The 1915 expedition uncovered a head, a torso, and a finger; now only the head remains. But whose was it?

Look closer.

We scanned the head at Massachusetts General Hospital’s ultra-high-resolution volume CT lab in preparation for extracting dental DNA to determine the mummy’s gender. The genetic testing remains inconclusive, but our scans revealed some surprises.

Follow the fractures.

The scans showed broken and missing facial bones where the jaw muscles would normally attach. At first we suspected damage from looting, or a side effect of excerebration, the process by which embalmers removed the brain. But the embalmers had made purposeful, precise cuts from inside the mouth. Why bother?

Get literal.

Ancient texts describing a rite called the Opening of the Mouth cited a chisel, but researchers had long assumed that the tool related to a statue and the opening was symbolic. Then we wondered: What if the authors had meant a literal opening? What if, in an effort to enable the deceased to speak in the afterlife, the embalmers had operated to let the jaw open freely, despite rigor mortis?

Do it yourself.

To test our theory, we prevailed on maxillofacial surgeons to perform the jaw-dropping procedure on cadavers with tools similar to those the ancient Egyptians used. Our preliminary findings suggest that the embalmers indeed honored the ancient rite to ensure the mummy’s freedom of speech well into the afterlife.

Rajiv Gupta, MD, PhD, is an HMS instructor in radiology at Massachusetts General Hospital.

Read More Tips on Getting a Mummy to Talk.

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