Studying Human Remains
My love of Egypt first arose when I was a child, browsing the bookshop of the tutankhamun exhibition in Dorset, where my sister and mother had been visiting. At the time, I had a fear of mummies, and had opted instead to visit a nearby teddy museum along with my father, which in fact was filled with terrifying six foot teddy bears with claws, and was eerily empty when we visited. Waiting for the rest of my family in the tut exhibition, I started reading a book on mummies, and realised they weren't quite that terrifying after all! My parents are still a little shocked that their mummy fearing daughter went on to study Egypt and then human remains!
From the point of view of the student, dry bone is easier to use to learn the anatomical features of the body, when compared to mummified material. With the naked eye, features used for ageing and sexing are much more easily identified, and there are methods for sexing, such as touching the Supraorbital ridge (brow of the eye socket) that an X-Ray can't replace. Likewise, to estimate a juveniles age, a bio archaeologist could look for the fusion of the sphenoid bone to the occipital bone, which both form part of the cranial vault. This fusion usually takes place between mid to late adolescence, making it a useful ageing tool, It's not quite as easy on a mummy of course, due to the wrappings, or with the mummification process, both man-made and natural( like ginger in the British museum) to take off the skull and study the features present.
In research however there are some real benefits to having a mummified body rather than one buried without such preservation. Burials without mummification may suffer intrusions from both humans and animals, and some bones may be damaged, or missing from the burial when found. By contrast, an mummy is preserved, (providing no tomb robbers have disturbed the remains) and the skeleton is as complete as it was in the life of the individual. Although the mummy cannot be unwrapped, the advance of technology and use of CT scanning removes this obstacle, meaning some sexing and ageing methods can be used.
I suppose one of the best things about mummies from an osteological viewpoint is soft tissue preservation. There are times in studying remains where the absence of soft tissue really hinders you – such as trying to identify a disease like tuberculosis, where skeletal TB kills many before it affects the skeleton. There are some really interesting studiesp that have used tissue remains in canopic jars to detect pathological conditions that can not always be detected in dry bone!
Jenny Murphy is a MSc Bioarchaeology and Forensic Anthropology student at the Institute of Archaeology at UCL. She is also a graduate of the institutes BA in Egyptian Archaeology programme, where she undertook fieldwork in the UK, and in Amheida, a Romano Egyptian site in Egypt. She is particularly interested in gender in Egypt, activity related to morphological changes to bone, and the application of forensics to Egyptology.
You can follow her at @hsp_jenny