Sunday, 20 September 2015

Why did the ancient Egyptians preserve the heart and yet discard the brain in the mummification of humans?

The brain is the most complex organ in the human body and probably the most remarkable. It allows a person to think, feel and store memories. So why did the ancient Egyptians remove the brain during the mummification process? Did they understand the function of the brain? The purpose of mummification was to preserve the body in its entirety for the afterlife so was the brain simply discarded or do we need more research in this area?

To the ancient Egyptians, the word ib for the heart was a metaphysical entity embodying thought, intelligence, memory and wisdom, as well as bravery, sadness and love. It was ib as a metaphysical entity that was weighed in the judgment scene depicted in the Ani papyrus and elsewhere. But there was a separate word used for the anatomical heart: haty. Preservation of the haty was vital in human embalming but the fate of the brain is still a puzzle. We know it was mainly removed and the process by which this was done. The purpose of mummification was to preserve the body intact for the afterlife, and other internal organs were surgically removed, preserved and put in canopic jars so why was the brain discarded?
I discuss the fate of the brain and heart in the mummification process in an article I wrote for the Ancient Egypt Magazine. I start off with looking at why mummification was important to the ancient Egyptians and why Egyptologists believe preservation of the heart was vital but not the brain. Is this analysis accurate or does recent research shed new evidence?

To read this in full follow the link below.

Friday, 22 May 2015

Childbirth in Ancient Egypt (Part One)

Surgical scene at the Temple of Kom Ombo depicting birthing stools on the left (photo taken by me)

Childbirth was difficult and sometimes dangerous in ancient Egypt. Women delivered their babies kneeling, or sitting on their heels, or on a delivery seat as depicted on wall reliefs in the temple of Kom Ombo. The hieroglyphs 'To give birth' also depict the squatting position and use of birthing stool or bricks.

There is no documentary evidence to suggest women in labour were assisted by the physicians (swnw). The medical papyri hardly pay any attention to complications that arise during the time of delivery but the swnw were known to treat gynaecological problems after birth.
The following extract by Hyginus (cited by von Staden in (1989) may relate to the Herophilis who practised in Alexandria in the Ptolemaic period (JF Nunn)

“The ancients had no midwives, and therefore women died {in childbirth}, led on by their sense of shame. For the Athenians had taken heed that no slave or woman should learn the science of medicine. A certain girl, Hagnodice, as a young woman desired to learn the science of medicine. Because of this desire, she cut her hair, put on male clothing and entrusted herself to a certain Herophilus for her training. After learning this science, when she heard a woman was having labour pains, she use to go to her. And when the woman refused to entrust herself {to Hagnodice}, thinking that she was a man, Hagnodice lifted her undergarment and revealed that she was a woman. In this way she used to cure women.”

Cleopatra with her son Cesarean at the Temple of Dendera (photo taken by me)

Ancient Egyptian medicine relied not just on the expertise of the physicians but also involved the work of the magicians and priests. Chanting and magical spells were used in healing and deities were invoked to assist the patients.

Deities That Assisted in Childbirth

God of pregnancy and childbirth; protector of the home and particularly of women and infants. Bes was believed to have a positive influence during pregnancy and childbirth and therefore was often represented in birth houses attached to temples. He was a bearded dwarf god and quite unusual from all the other Egyptian gods. He was often shown carrying a rattle and with his tongue sticking out. During the birth, Bes would dance and shake his rattle whilst yelling to frighten away demons that would otherwise put a curse on the child. It was believed that after the child was born Bes would stay around to amuse the child and that a baby’s smile was a sign that Bes was there pulling funny faces.

Taweret, the great one, was the goddess with the head of a hippopotamus, the legs and arms of a lion, the tail of a crocodile and human breasts. She had a special role in assisting women in childbirth and was a favourite subject for amulets.

Taweret, the great one (Photo taken by me at the British Museum)

Meskhenet’s symbol of two loops on top of a vertical stroke represented the two horned uterus of the heifer. She was the goddess of childbirth and believed to be the creator of each childs ‘Ka’ which she breathed into them at the moment of birth.

Isis was a very important goddess and known to be the divine mother. As the wife of Osiris and mother of Horus she had a very special status in ancient Egyptian mythology.


Hathor was the goddess of fertility and childbirth. She was one of the most popular deities in ancient Egypt and was invoked to help with problems related to conception, childbirth and women's health.

Images of Hathor on blocks in the Temple of Montu at Tod (Photo taken by me)

Image of Hathor on a block in the Temple of Mut, Luxor (Photo taken by me)

Hathor on a block on the Temple of Mut, Luxor (photo taken by me)

Saturday, 26 July 2014

Surgical Procedures in Ancient Egypt

Picture taken by me of the disputed surgical relief at the temple of Kom Ombo

Evidence suggests that the ancient Egyptian physicians (swnw) only carried out minor surgical procedures. The disputed surgical instrument relief on the wall of Kom Ombo displays several objects which can be interpreted as knife blades, spatulas, small bags for drugs etc. This relief is from the Greek/Roman period.
One surgical procedure that was routinely carried out in ancient Egypt however, was circumcision. It was a ritual performed by the priests on groups of adolescent men and not infants. The world’s oldest portrayal of circumcision was carved on the wall of the Dynasty VI tomb of Ankhmahor, Vizier to King Teti.
The Edwin Smith Papyrus is the earliest document of major medical significance and contains the first evidence of surgical procedures and scientific reasoning. The cases are described by the anatomical site of the injury, working down from the top of the skull to the facial and temporal regions, the neck, collar bones, upper arms, chest and ribs, shoulders, and then to the upper spinal column. The papyrus describes 27 cases of head trauma. Of these 4 are deep scalp wounds whereby the skull is exposed and 11 are skull fractures. Great detail is given of the symptoms and signs of head injury.
The treatment suggested in the Edwin Smith Papyrus ranges from letting nature take its course, to cauterization to seal wounds; splints (made of wood and linen rolls) to immobilize fractured limbs; manipulative reductions of fractures and dislocations and the use of medicine.
The swnw knew that the complete elimination of pus from wounds was an essential precondition to their successful closing and healing. Fresh meat was also applied to wounds to promote blood clotting.
Although the Edwin Smith papyrus shows a logical format to the management of trauma, other papyri give scant evidence of surgery outside the field of trauma.

Monday, 7 July 2014

The Use of Natron in Ancient Egyptian Medicine

The major constituents of natron are sodium chloride, sodium sulphate, sodium carbonate and sodium bicarbonate. It was deposited as a mixture of evaporites in areas which had previously been flooded. Climate change was responsible for the subsequent evaporation to dryness of the mixture.
Natron played an important role in ancient Egyptian medicine. In its solid state or as a paste it would have been useful in reducing swelling due to the powerful osmotic effect of drawing out fluid. Its most extensive use was as an external application often under a bandage, for example, Ebers 557:
“Another remedy to draw pus (ryt): ‘ipshen’ (unknown), 1;natron, 1;clay (or gypsum) from the potters kiln, 1;carob, 1;terebinth resin, 1;bring flour of date (nyt net benri); make one thing and bandage with it.”
Ebers 595 also prescribes natron for drawing out pus. 
Natron is also mentioned in the Brooklyn papyrus to aid a person inflicted with a bite from a male snake:
“ Incise (teshtesh) his wound/bite with the knife treatment (djua) many times. Then you should apply a bandage to it, red natron, salt ….”
It is also prescribed for the treatment of diseases of the eyes: black eye paint, red ochre, ochre, red natron, applied to outside (sa) of both eyes (Ebers 346).
Mummies have shown a few examples of skin diseases. The Ebers papyrus has some remedies for local application which include natron. Ebers 714 discusses a remedy to renew the skin by using honey, red natron and salt. Ebers 715 recommends powdered alabaster, natron, salt and honey to be embellish the skin.
Finally natron was used in the mummification process itself. The body was immersed in natron for approximately 40 days to dry and preserve it. It is possible that dry natron was used since experiments such as that of Lucas in the 1930’s on mummifying chickens found dry natron more effective than solution in preservation.

Picture taken by me at the British Museum  
On the left is a modern sample of crystalline natron from Wadi Natron. The basket contains a linen bag of embalmers’ salt  from the third intermediate period EA 9556. The pottery jar contains embalmers’ salt from the late period.

Tuesday, 24 June 2014

Heart Amulets

The heart amulet has had various uses during ancient Egyptian history but by the 18th dynasty it was mainly used as a symbol of wisdom and purity to be given to Osiris in the afterlife. It was at the centre of the weighing of the heart ritual whereby it was given to the deceased in a symbolic way to denote purity and wisdom against corruption. By the late period there was a huge increase in the use of heart amulets across all sections of the population. Its role now included the power to guard against evil and assure good health.

A heart amulet in the form of a scarab was used because symbolically the scarab beetle represented the sun god due to its regenerative abilities. It was there to stimulate the heart of the deceased back to life. Symbolically the scarab beetle also represented ‘transformation.’ It was there to assist the deceased’s heart with magical changes described in Spells 76-88. It had Chapter 30 B from the ‘Book of the Dead’ inscribed on it to assist the deceased in the weighing of the heart against the feather of truth. Ultimately it was there to prevent the deceased from being condemned by Osiris

British Museum - Steatite heart scarab amulet, New Kingdom, EA 38073

Metropolitan Museum of Art - Glass heart amulets, Dynasty 18–19 (ca. 1550–1186 B.C.), Gift of Helen Miller Gould, 1910 (10.130.1782)

Sunday, 22 June 2014

Pregnancy Testing in Ancient Egypt

Ptolemaic Period - Mythical representation of Cleopatra giving birth with goddesses in attendance as recorded by the Napoleonic expedition in the house Armant which is now destroyed. Description de l'Egypte 1809.

The Kahun papyri were found in 1889 by Flinders Petrie and contain gynaecological text. The third section, paragraphs 26-32 are concerned with pregnancy testing. It starts with observing that the vessels of the breasts are distended. This is one of the few tests that parallel the Hippocratic school. This is what Kahun 26 says:
'To recognise who will be pregnant and who not. She lies down while you smear her breast and her two arms and shoulders with new oil. You rise early in the morning to examine her. If you find her blood vessels fresh and good none being collapsed bearing children will be satisfactory. If you find them green and dark at the time of investigating them she will bear children late.'
Dilated veins over the breasts are well known as an early sign of pregnancy.
Paragraph 28 recommends placing an onion bulb deep in the flesh with a positive outcome being determined by the odour of the onion appearing at her nose. An incantation (the only one that appears in the papyrus) is recommended to help the onion test.
The Kahun, Berlin and Carlsberg papyri contain a series of tests for fertility, pregnancy and to determine the sex of the unborn child. The tests include the induction of vomiting and examination of the eyes. The most famous pregnancy test is in the Berlin papyrus (199). It recommends emmer and barley moistened in the woman's urine daily ('like dates and line sands in two bags') If they all grow she will bear a child. If the barley grows it will be a male. If the emmer grows it will be a female. If neither grows then she's not pregnant.
This technique was put to the test by Ghaliounghui, Khalil and Ammar in 1963. With forty specimens from pregnant women there was growth of one or both species in twenty eight cases. This growth seemed to be a good indicator of pregnancy but failed to show pregnancy in 30% of cases. The indicator of sex was less successful with seven correct and sixteen incorrect.

Thursday, 19 June 2014

A Rejuvenating Potion - Making an old man into a youth

The ancient Egyptians were just as worried about ageing as we are. Below is a rejuvenating prescription.
Prescription 4 Edwin Smith Papyrus. V. 4,8 - v. 5, 10
(Courtesy of The Metropolitan Museum of Art)
'One has to get a great many bitter almonds, comparable to 3 bushels. They have to be pulverised and put in the sunlight. After they have dried completely, they have to be winnowed until only the kernels of them remain. As for all that comes from this, it has to be measured, as well as sieving the chaff off the threshing floor with a sieve. Measure likewise all those kernels that have come out. Make into 2 parts: one if those kernels, and the other, of the chaff. Make one part equal to the other.
They have to be set as a compound in water and made into a soft dough. They have to be put in a new pot in the fire and cooked completely and adequately. You will know they have cooked adequately by the water evaporating and by their drying out until they are like dry chaff, without moisture in it.
They have to be taken out. When they have cooled, they have to be put in a jug to wash them in the river. They have to be washed adequately. One will know they have been washed adequately by one tasting the taste of the water that is in the jug.'

The Edwin Smith Papyrus; Dynasty 16-17; 1600 BC Malloch Rare Book Room of the New York Academy of Medicine Library.