CT scans reveal infections in ancient Egyptian child mummies

Study is the first to show radiological evidence of dried pus and a bandage dressing used for treatment

CT has become the gold standard of non-destructive imaging methods in human mummy studies. Photo: Reuters
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A new study using computed tomography scans of ancient Egyptian child mummies is the first to show radiological evidence of dried pus due to infections and an original ancient Egyptian bandage dressing used for treatment.

A team of seven researchers from Germany, Italy and the US conducted whole-body CT examinations on 21 ancient Egyptian child mummies on location. The mummies included 18 at German museums, two at Swiss museums and one at an Italian museum.

Most of the mummies were from the Ptolemaic (332–30BC) and Roman (30 BC–395AD) periods.

The objective of the study was to identify purulent infections, meaning they contained or discharged pus, in the externally well-preserved mummies.

"In contrast to previous studies, we carefully analysed the CT Images for the presence of signs of infections, such as abscesses or soft tissue changes," study co-author Albert Zink, director of the Institute for Mummy Studies at Eurac Research in Bolzano, Italy, told The National.

"Such infections are difficult to detect and you have to differentiate them from taphonomic changes or material that was introduced during the embalming process."

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Three out of the 21 mummies had radiological evidence of such infections. In one mummy of a young girl, a bandage-like structure at the left lower leg was detected that was most probably a dressing of a skin lesion.

“These cases may serve as models for further palaeopathological investigation,” the authors said. “The evidence of an original dressing contributes to our knowledge of ancient Egyptian medicine.”

In ancient Egypt, infections were likely a common occurrence and a major cause of death due to the absence of antibiotics.

But evidence of infections in ancient mummies is limited, especially in the less-frequently investigated child mummies, the study says. Previously, molecular evidence of bacteraemia, the presence of bacteria in the blood, was reported in an ancient Egyptian infant mummy.

CT has become the gold standard of non-destructive imaging methods in human mummy studies. For example, in February of last year, a CT scan of the mummy of the Egyptian pharaoh Seqenenre Taa II revealed details of the circumstances of his violent death.

In the latest study, CT examinations of dental and skeletal development were used to estimate the age of the children at death, ranging from one year old to 14. The median age was about 5.

Sex was determined through the identification of genitalia, iconography of mummy decoration and names written on the coffins or papyrus. Twelve children were assessed as male and seven as female, while sex was indeterminate in two.

The first case of infection in the mummy of a 9 to 11-year-old boy indicates purulent sinusitis as evidenced by dried masses, especially in the basal parts of both maxillary sinuses.

In the second case, the mummy of a 2-and-a-half to 4-year-old girl has a bandage-like structure on her leg overlying masses within the adjacent soft tissues. The masses are consistent with dried pus, “indicating the individual had purulent cellulitis or abscess”, the study says.

The dressing treatment was reported in the Edwin Smith Papyrus, an ancient Egyptian medical text and trauma treatise from about 1650BC to 1550BC. The remedy to draw heat out from the mouth of an infected wound included natron salt and a powder applied inside a bandage.

"This study appears to be the first to physically note an original ancient Egyptian dressing”, the authors say.

In the third case, researchers found a dried fluid level in the enlarged capsule of the right hip in the mummy of a 2 to 3-year-old boy, “most probably indicating dried pus in septic arthritis”.

The researchers suggested that radiological-pathological correlation in mummies in which physical sampling is available may reveal further insights into purulent infections in ancient Egypt.

Updated: June 12, 2023, 9:59 AM