“The visitors will now learn that Asru the temple singer, one of the most famous mummies in Britain, suffered what must have been agonising arthritis in her neck.”
Late at night, when most of the hospital is quiet and dark, a van arrives, bringing very elderly neighbours of the Royal Manchester children’s hospital: the mummies from the nearby university museum, come to have the secrets hidden within their ancient shrouds and bandages penetrated by the hospital’s CT scanner.
The children’s hospital is regularly used because its scanner is less in demand than those of other nearby hospitals, and never at night except in dire emergencies. Some of the results are already on display, as Manchester Museum’s renowned Egyptian galleries, with one of the best collections in the country, reopened this month redisplayed and rebranded as Ancient Worlds.
The old gallery, always the best-loved part of the museum, had 14 mummies on display, but now with hundreds of newly displayed objects and an emphasis on daily life as well as death in ancient Egypt, there are only three: slightly to the surprise of the museum authorities, there has been no protest from visitors over so many old friends disappearing into storage.
The visitors will now learn that Asru the temple singer, one of the most famous mummies in Britain, suffered what must have been agonising arthritis in her neck, and that under the beautiful, undisturbed wrappings of a mummy of a bearded man there is a chaotic jumble of bones – and no brain.
Asru’s shrivelled, leathery skin had already been exposed in the craze for unwrapping mummies as public spectacles in the early 19th century. She died around 750BC, and was given to the museum in 1825 with some of the original wrappings, and her lavishly painted double coffins, which revealed her name and that she had been a singer in a temple at Karnak.
Manchester has been a pioneer in mummy research since Margaret Murray, the first female Egyptologist on the permanent staff of any British museum, carefully unwrapped a mummy in 1908. The public was admitted, and it was standing room only in the university’s largest lecture theatre, but the procedure was far from the earlier sideshow atmosphere, with the first multidisciplinary team ever assembled to study a mummy in attendance.
Since then, the museum has taken advantage of every advance in medical science to study the mummies further, and has established a database of almost 2,000 tissue samples.
Earlier research on Asru showed that although wealthy and highly regarded enough for an expensive funeral, her body was riddled with parasites including intestinal worms, which would have produced miserable side effects including anaemia and diarrhoea, but probably would not have killed her. The new scans suggest that although she lived into her 50s, at some point she must have been doing hard physical labour, as the arthritis was probably caused by carrying heavy weights on her head.
The other mummies scanned bear the startlingly realistic portraits painted in pigment thickened with wax, made around 2,000 years ago in a fusion of Greek, Roman and Egyptian artistic traditions in the Fayum region, which astonished the west when they were first discovered. Most of the portraits painted on wooden panels, originally bandaged on to cover the heads of the mummies, were separated more than a century ago from the bodies, so the intact examples in Manchester are particularly valuable.
The paintings are so lifelike, preserving their original brilliant colours, that since they were discovered in the late 19th century some scholars have speculated that they are idealised images of the subjects in youth, and others that they must have been painted from life.
Campbell Price, curator of Egypt and Sudan at the museum, was one of the small group including his predecessor Rosalie David, and Professor Judith Adams, head of diagnostic radiology at the university medical school, who stood in awed silence as the mummies were put through the scanner, revealing in minutes what could not be done physically without destroying the elaborate and beautifully decorated bindings and the mummified bodies.
One portrait shows a handsome, bright-eyed young man, and the well-preserved remains shown in the scan appear to be of a young man with a fine set of teeth, matching the painting. The other is of an older, bearded man, and the scan revealed a man who died in middle age, perhaps in his 30s. The wrapping, however, elaborately decorated with studs and gilding, concealed a badly disarticulated body, kept in shape by being bound on to a wooden plank.
Further analysis of the scan may reveal inscriptions on the plank that could name the dead man. In both cases the brains were missing. “We can take from this that, in the Roman period in Egypt at least, appearances were more important than the physical preservation of the body,” Price said.
Scanning will continue on all 24 mummies in the collection, and Price hopes to find funding to reconstruct the heads of the portrait mummies from scanned measurements – another technique in which Manchester University is an international pioneer – which should also help reveal whether they are true likenesses.
• Ancient Worlds, free, open daily at Manchester Museum
guardian.co.uk © Guardian News & Media Limited 2010