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Unwrapping the secrets of the ancients

23 September 2008

The Victorian Institute of Forensic Medicine is the perfect setting for scientific investigations into mummified human remains – whatever the era.

When an international mummy expert from the British Museum showed Janet Davey a CT scan of a mummy back in 1994, she was instantly hooked by the search for secrets of how ancient Egyptians lived and died.

Fourteen years later, the former teacher works as one of only two Forensic Egyptologists in Australia, leads the evocatively-named Melbourne Mummy Project, is completing a PhD on Graeco-Roman mummies, and still collaborates with the man who first inspired her: Dr John Taylor (the author of such renowned texts as Mummy: The Inside Story).

"I'm particularly looking at three British Museum mummies. The mummies are of small children between the ages of five and seven. One looks as though it has a fractured skull, one may have a dislocated jaw, although this might be a genetic defect, and the third appears to be injury free. I look for injuries and abnormalities," says Ms Davey.

She believes that these children must have come from wealthier families that could afford the hefty cost of embalming and – in one case - even gold-leaf.

The Graeco-Roman era dates from the invasion of Egypt by Alexander the Great in 323 BCE, through to the early Christian era when mummification ceased. It is a perfect blank canvas for Ms Davey's research, since much Egyptology almost overlooks this era, as well as child mummies.

Led by her fascination with the subject, the Melbourne Mummy Project began investigating child mummies in 1995.

While its members are mostly based at the Victorian Institute of Forensic Medicine (VIFM) (part of the Monash Department of Forensic Medicine), and the School of Dental Science at the University of Melbourne, the team also maintains links with the British Museum, the University of Manchester and the University of Dundee.

All members are volunteers, providing skills in areas such as toxicology, histology, molecular biology and cutting-edge CT scanning. Staff at VIFM will soon conduct toxicology tests of mummy hairs to check for any traces of pain relief medication in the form of opiates, but hospitals and research centres all over the world have responded to Ms Davey's call for help.

She is awed by the strength of teamwork and technology.

"When we started CT scanning in 1995, that technology was the latest, but we look back at the work we've done now and think 'how very ordinary' … I'd like to make the CT scanning that we have into interactive DVDs. I don't see why the general public couldn't have access to a lot of the data," she says.

"The CT scans of the three child mummies have some unusual calcification, and we're wondering whether maybe the three children died of a disease."

Electronics company Toshiba is now helping her to take technology a step further than basic CT scanning, developing 3D reconstructions and video representations of the mummies so that she can observe their skeletal structure and anatomy.

Travel is a key part of the life as a Forensic Egyptologist, and Ms Davey recently visited museums and contacts in the Cairo, London, Zurich and Manchester, selecting a further three mummies for analysis. She sometimes can't believe the exotic locations to which her life has taken her since she first knocked on Dr John Taylor's door at the British Museum.

In 2000, she completed a Certificate in Egyptology at Manchester University, with a dissertation about the Melbourne Mummies. She continued to focus on Egyptology at Manchester University, graduating with a Masters in Biomedical and Forensic studies in 2005.

She also spent a year in Cairo at the Egyptian Museum before returning to Melbourne in 2007, to begin her PhD studies in Forensic Egyptology.

"What drives me is the hope that during our mummy research we might find something that will make a difference to modern medicine. We really don't know what we're looking for. When you CT scan a mummy, you don't know what you're going to find, so there's always a hope that your work is relevant to modern-day, as well as adding to the body of knowledge about ancient Egypt."

By Elise Hendriksen and Alexandra Roginski


Janet Davey

Janet Davey of the Victorian Institute of Forensic Medicine.

Mummified human remains of a boy

The mummified human remains of a boy from the Graeco-Roman Period who is about to be CT scanned at Blackheath Hospital, London (BMI Healthcare), in a session organised by Janet Davey. The boy is approximately seven years old and has gold leaf decoration on his face and body. Subsequent CT scan data provided precise anatomical information to assist in determining sex, age and conditions within the body.

Image courtesy of BMI Healthcare/Blackheath Hospital and Toshiba UK

A small mummified boy, adorned with gold leaf

A very small boy from the Graeco-Roman Period of ancient Egypt, adorned with extensive gold leaf decoration on the face and body. The reason for this decoration is unknown. The child has fair hair and eyelashes, suggesting that he may be of foreign extraction rather than ancient Egyptian.

Image courtesy of the Egyptian Museum Cairo.