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Examination of a Child Mummy

Child Mummy
Kimberly Kania / MIR Photography

In 1985 a small mummy was donated to the St. Louis Science Center where it was stored out of sight for the next 22 years. Little was known about the mummy other than it was reportedly purchased in Egypt near the turn of the century. Recently Al Wiman, Vice President of Public Understanding of Science, discovered this mummy child locked away and wanted to learn more. He approached Dr. Charles Hildebolt, DDS, PhD, of the Electronic Radiology Lab within the Mallickrodt Institute of Radiology at Washington University School Of Medicine to help sort out the mysteries surrounding the child mummy.

Dr. Hildebolt assembled an International team of specialists to study the specimen. Clues were sought as to the age, sex, ethnicity, cause of death, period in which the child lived, and anything else that might be learned.

General Mummification

The ancient Egyptians preserved the dead through a mummification process so that the souls of the dead persons would be able to reanimate their bodies in the hereafter. Various types of mummification were practiced from about 3000 BC, to well into the Sixth century AD. Mummification traditionally took 70 days. The technology used to mummify the dead changed throughout Egyptian history although the basic idea of drying out the body to preserve it remained constant. If there was money to pay for mummification, anyone could be mummified, regardless of the person’s age, although it was unusual for young babies to be mummified unless they were royal.

In its “classic” phase (c. 1400-1100 BC) the best quality of mummification was carried out as follows. First, a sharp implement was introduced into the left nostril and forced through the ethmoid bone, thus giving access to the brain. Another flexible metal (copper-bronze) tool was then used to break up the brain and pulverize it. The embalmers used a hooked instrument to pull the pulverized brain out of the nostril. The brain was not preserved because it was thought that its only function was to produce mucus. Once the brain had been removed, melted resin was poured into the cranial cavity to disinfect, deodorize, and harden the skull to prevent breakage. The next step involved removing the viscera (internal organs). A small cut was made in the left side of the body, and the liver, stomach, intestines, and lungs were removed through the opening. The heart was not removed because it was thought to be the seat of the soul. The body cavity was washed with palm wine, dried with linen towels, and the body was packed, inside and out, with powdered natron. Natron is a naturally occurring substance (basically a mixture of salt and baking soda) that is found in Egypt’s Wadi Natrun. Natron was used to desiccate (dry) the body over a period of 40 days. The same process was used on the internal organs that had been previously removed.

Once the body was dry, it was removed from the natron and dusted off, before being anointed with sacred oils and unguents (ointments) prior to wrapping. It might have also been painted with resin in places to stop microbial growth, and also to give the skin a golden hue. According to the Egyptians, after death one was transformed into a semi-divine being, and the flesh of the gods was gold, similar to the color of resin. These oils and resins not only played a religious role, but a practical one: they rendered the body more flexible and easy to wrap. Resin was also often applied to the body to protect it from deterioration. The wrapping procedure took 30 days. As priests chanted prayers and burned incense, strips of linen bandage were wound around the body and were interspersed with amulets that protected the deceased and helped ease his or her path to the afterworld... The linen wrappings created a protective cocoon around the deceased, while the prayers and amulets created a metaphysical one. The viscera, which had been removed earlier and desiccated, were wrapped separately in the same way as the body and were placed in four individual containers called Canopic Jars. After the wrapping of the body was completed, the body, together with the viscera, were taken in a funerary cortege (funeral procession) to the tomb where the last rites were celebrated.

The most important portion of the funerary ceremony was the Opening of the Mouth ritual when the priest recited special spells that revivified the deceased and reactivated the five senses. Upon the completion of this rite, there was a funerary feast involving all the mourners, priests, and priestesses. After this, the deceased was placed in a coffin and interred in the tomb with the grave goods. Then the tomb was sealed, leaving the decorated tomb chapel open for people to celebrate the cult for the dead.

The St. Louis Mummy

The St. Louis mummy is wrapped in, at least, 8 layers of linen bandages, with a large shroud being the final wrapping. This is kept in place by linen bands that were originally tied around the ankles, waist, neck and head. A balance plain weave was used to create the wrappings, and there is a considerable amount of resin on the fibers. The wrapping material is consistent with that used in the Roman Period (30 BC until 395 AD) or a bit earlier. Sometime in the unknown recent past, the wrappings were cut away to expose part of the head, neck, and chest. The black color of the skin is caused by oils, perhaps resins, and unguents that were used on the body after desiccation. A postage-stamp-sized piece of the wrapping material was sent to Beta Analytic Inc. in Miami, Florida for radiocarbon dating. The material was dated with 95% probability to a range of 40 BC to 130 AD. An x-ray computed tomography (CT/CAT) scan of the mummy was performed at Barnes Jewish Hospital (St. Louis, MO, USA). Three-dimensional (3D) images of the mummy were created at the Mallinckrodt Institute of Radiology (Department of Radiology) at Washington University School of Medicine. With the 3D images, it is possible to electronically remove wrappings to visualize the mummy itself as well as the inside of the mummy.

Based on CT images of the reproductive organs, the body was that of a boy. The roots of his baby teeth had just begun to form and to erupt through the bone; so he was probably about 7 to 8 months old at the time of death. This age estimate is in agreement with age estimates based upon the formation of his hand bones and the closure of the sutures that separated the bones of his head. He was 60 cm (23.6 inches) tall. His hands lie on his thighs. His feet have very high arches (pes cavus) that might be due to the way in which he was wrapped. The spine is also distorted. The mummification process probably loosened the connection between the bones of the spine, and when the body was wrapped, the wrappings distorted the spine. The body was kept rigid by being placed on a wooden rod that was included in the wrappings. The use of such a procedure was common at the time that the body was mummified.

The child’s head appears to be large, but there is no conclusive evidence of hydrocephalus (large head caused by the accumulation of fluid in the skull). The bones at the back of the skull also are somewhat overlapping—a condition known as “bathrocephally”. This condition is harmless. The skull could be described as being plagiocephalic, which means flattened head. This deformation may have been caused by the child’s head being placed in the same position while he was alive and occurs in 33 of 10, 000 births today. The ethmoid bone has a small hole through it which may be how the brain was removed. The ethmoid plate is still forming at 7 months of age so it would not have been hard to puncture it with a sharp instrument. Once the instrument accessed the brain compartment it could have been used to liquefy the brain and drain it out through the left nostril. There is a small hole on the left side of the skull and the ear on this side of the head has slid down the side of the skull. It is mostly likely that this hole was created post-mortem, possibly recently to examine the inside of the skull. The internal organs (liver, lung, stomach, and intestines) were removed through a cut in the upper left side of the stomach area. The location of the canopic jars containing the internal organs is unknown. The CT images also revealed very dense objects within the body cavity and within the wrappings. These objects are most likely amulets that were inserted during the mummification process to protect the spirit of the child in the afterlife. The cause of the child’s death has not been determined, although it may have been caused by some childhood sickness that left no trace on the bone. Infant and juvenile mortality was high in the ancient world.

Egypt During The Time That The Child Lived

The Ptolemaic (Greek) Period in Egypt ran from 332 to 30 BC and the Roman Period from 30 BC until 395 AD; thus the child may have been alive during either of these periods. Alexander the Great (King of Macedon) conquered Egypt in 332 BC. After Alexander’s death, one of his generals and a friend (Ptolemy) was appointed protector of Egypt. Ptolemy eventually declared himself king of Egypt. All male rulers of the ensuing dynasty (32nd) had the last name “Ptolemy”. The queens (and princesses) preferred the names Berenice, Arsinoe, or Cleopatra (“kleos” = “famous, “patris” = “parents”). Although the Ptolemaic kings and queens adopted Egyptian customs, they spoke Greek and thought that Greek culture was superior to Egyptian culture except for medicine and the occult arts. The word “Egypt” is a Greek word. Cleopatra VII was the last queen of the Ptolemaic line. Because of an argument with her half-brother over succession, she invited Julius Caesar and the Romans to intervene on her behalf. After Caesar’s death, she allied herself with Mark Antony. Octavian (Caesar Augustus) fought against the couple to gain control over Egypt and defeated them in 31 BC at the battle of Actium. After Octavian’s triumph, Cleopatra committed suicide.

With the death of Cleopatra VII Egypt became a Roman province, but unlike the Ptolemies who lived in Egypt and adopted Egyptian culture, the Romans did not and mostly ruled Egypt in absentia from Rome. Rome’s main interest in Egypt was a reliable grain supply. Anti-Roman sentiment may have contributed to the rise of a new religion “Christianity”, which was introduced to Egypt in the first century AD.

It is likely that the mummified boy lived during the time when Egypt was a province of the Roman Empire, possibly under the rule of Caesar Augustus. He was probably from a middle class family who could easily afford a good quality of mummification. At this time Egypt was occupied by Romans, and Egyptians were not given the full rights and privileges of Roman citizens although some of them maintained relatively high governmental positions. Egyptian religious beliefs were adopted by some of the Romans, and it is possible that both Egyptians and Romans were mummified. Egypt served as the grain basket of the Roman Empire, and a culmination point of many important trade routes from India and Africa that supplied the Romans with spices, gold, minerals, rare and precious woods, incense, ivory, jewels, textiles, and animals and their pelts. Thus, the population of Egypt at this time was diverse due to traders, Roman military personnel, as well as the mixture of people who had migrated to Egypt over the years, including Romans, Libyans, Nubians, and denizens of the area of Syria and Palestine.

Research team members in alphabetical order by institution:

American University in Cairo
Salima Ikran, PhD (Egyptologist/Mummy Specialist)

Florida State University
Dean Falk, PhD (Anthropologist)

Metropolitan Museum of Art
Emilia Cortes (Conservator)

Saint Louis Science Center
Melinda Frillman, Collections Manager

Washington University School of Medicine
Charles F. Hildebolt, DDS, PhD (Dentist, Anthropolgist)
Kirk Smith, BS (Senior Research Engineer)
Anne Bowcock, PhD (Geneticist)
Li Cao, PhD (Geneticist)
Steven Don, MD (Pediatric Radiologist)