Scientists explore Egyptian mummy bones with x-rays and infrared light

Related Articles

Related Articles

Experiments at the Department of Energy’s Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory (Berkeley Lab) are casting a new light on Egyptian soil and ancient mummified bone samples that could provide a richer understanding of daily life and environmental conditions thousands of years ago.

In a two-monthslong research effort that concluded in late August, two researchers from Cairo University in Egypt brought 32 bone samples and two soil samples to study using X-ray and infrared light-based techniques at Berkeley Lab’s Advanced Light Source (ALS). The ALS produces various wavelengths of bright light that can be used to explore the microscopic chemistry, structure, and other properties of samples.

Their visit was made possible by LAAAMP – the Lightsources for Africa, the Americas, Asia and Middle East Project – a grant-supported program that is intended to foster greater international scientific opportunity and collaboration for scientists working in that region of the globe.

 

Samples represent four dynasties, two burial sites

The samples included bone fragments of mummified human remains that date back 2,000 to 4,000 years, and soil collected from the sites of the human remains. The remains represent four different dynasties in Egypt: the Middle Kingdom, Second Intermediate Period, Late Period, and Greco-Roman.

The visiting scientists, Cairo University Associate Professor Ahmed Elnewishy and postdoctoral researcher Mohamed Kasem, wanted to distinguish whether chemical concentrations in the bone samples were related to the individuals’ health, diet, and daily lives, or whether the chemicals in the soil had changed the bones’ chemistry over time.

Their work is important for Egypt’s cultural heritage and also for a better understanding of antiquities preservation and the potential pathways for contamination of these remains. The samples were recovered from two Egyptian sites – Saqqara, the site of an ancient burial ground; and Aswan, the site of an ancient city on the bank of the Nile once known as Swenett – by Cairo University archaeologists.

“The bones are acting like an archive,” said Kasem, who has studied ancient bone chemistry since his Ph.D. studies, dating back to 2011. He has used a chemical-analysis technique involving laser ablation, in which a short laser pulse blasts away a small volume of material from a sample. Then, emitted light from this little blast is analyzed to determine what elements are present.

“We have found lead, aluminum, and other elements that give us an indication of the environment and the toxicity of that time,” he said. “That information is stored right in the bones.”

Differentiating soil vs. bone chemistry

What’s tricky is to sort out how the elements got in the bone. “There might be some diffusion of elements from outside to inside the bones, and effects from bacteria, humidity, and other effects. It is difficult to separate this – to know if it is coming from the surrounding soil. So we’ve been trying different techniques.”

Kasem added, “So many factors affect the preservation. One of them is how long the bone has been buried in soil and also the state of the bone and the different types of soil.” Differences in embalming techniques could also affect the preservation of the bone and the chemistry they find in the X-ray studies. “There are different qualities in the materials, like the cloth and the resins they used to embalm,” he said.

While the ancient Egyptians didn’t use aluminum in metal-working, researchers have found that they used potassium alum, a chemical compound containing aluminum, to reduce cloudiness in drinking water. And the concentrations of lead were likely due to the lead that Egyptians used to polish pottery.

The latest studies are focused on samples including slices from the head of femur bones and from the femur shafts to see whether one sample type may be more prone to contamination from surrounding soil than the other type, for example. Femur bones are the strongest bones in the human body and run from the knees to the hips. The head, at the top of the femur, has spongier bone material than the core of the shaft.

The researchers worked with ALS research scientists Hans Bechtel and Eric Schaible to carry out experiments at three different beamlines. Schaible assisted the researchers with a technique known as small-angle X-ray scattering (SAXS), which they used to analyze the nanoscale patterning of collagen, an abundant human protein.

X-ray scans reveal collagen patterns

A single scan of the bone cross-sections, which measured up to 3 to 5 centimeters across and about half a millimeter in thickness, took two to six hours to complete and provided a detailed 2D map showing how the collagen was organized within the bone.

These images can be compared with modern bones to better understand whether and how the collagen degraded over time, and can possibly tell us about an individual’s health.

“Collagen is one of the main building blocks of the body,” Schaible said. “It’s found in skin, bones, internal organs, eyes, ears, blood vessels – it’s one of the main things we’re made of.  When we shine X-rays through the collagen, the X-rays are scattered and the pattern of scattering that they make can tell us a lot about how well-preserved and well-organized the collagen is.”

Though there is much analysis ahead to interpret the data taken from the samples, Schaible said that the collagen assemblies generally aren’t as well ordered in the ancient samples as in healthy modern bones.

“It’s very exciting to be involved in this project, and to learn about the journey these mummies have been on, in life and after death,” he said.

Infrared light shows bone chemistry, mineral concentrations

The infrared studies at the ALS show the chemical distribution and concentration of the minerals and organic materials present in the bones.

“One of the main obstacles was in how to prepare the samples,” said Elnewishy. It is difficult to cut thin cross-sections from such delicate material.

Schaible contacted a specialized lab at UC Berkeley’s Earth and Planetary Science Department, which aided in slicing the samples. For the thinnest sections and the most fragile samples, the bone was suspended in epoxy resin and then sliced.

Plans for new experiments

Elnewishy said there are plans to also conduct related experiments at SESAME (Synchrotron-light for Experimental Science and Applications in the Middle East), a scientific light source in Jordan that opened up to experiments in 2017. SESAME was built through a cooperative venture by scientists and governments in the region.

He noted that what the team learns about cultural heritage and preservation of samples through its experiments could potentially benefit the collections of the Grand Egyptian Museum in Giza, which is expected to open in 2020 and will host more than 100,000 Egyptian artifacts.

DOE/LAWRENCE BERKELEY NATIONAL LABORATORY

Header Image – Ahmed Elnewishy, an associate professor at Cairo University, holds a femur bone sample from mummified human remains that was studied at Berkeley Lab’s Advanced Light Source synchrotron. Elneshy and Cairo University postdoctoral researcher Mohamed Kasem studied dozens of ancient Egyptian bone samples and some soil samples during a two-month visit made possible by a grant-supported program called LAAAMP. Credit : Marilyn Sargent/Berkeley Lab

Download the HeritageDaily mobile application on iOS and Android

More on this topic

LATEST NEWS

Ancient Mosaic Criticises Christianity

An ancient mosaic from a 4th-century house in the centre of the ancient city of Paphos in Cyprus, was a 'pictorial' criticism of Christianity according to experts.

Geoscience: Cosmic Diamonds Formed During Gigantic Planetary Collisions

It is estimated that over 10 million asteroids are circling the Earth in the asteroid belt. They are relics from the early days of our solar system, when our planets formed out of a large cloud of gas and dust rotating around the sun.

Vettuvan Koil – The Temple of the Slayer

Vettuvan Koil is a rock-cut temple, located in Kalugumalai, a panchayat town on the ancient trade routes from Kovilpatti to courtallam, in the southern Indian state of Tamil Nadu.

The Testimony of Trees: How Volcanic Eruptions Shaped 2000 Years of World History

Researchers have shown that over the past two thousand years, volcanoes have played a larger role in natural temperature variability than previously thought, and their climatic effects may have contributed to past societal and economic change.

Sentinels of Ocean Acidification Impacts Survived Earth’s Last Mass Extinction

Two groups of tiny, delicate marine organisms, sea butterflies and sea angels, were found to be surprisingly resilient--having survived dramatic global climate change and Earth's most recent mass extinction event 66 million years ago.

The Venerable Ensign Wasp, Killing Cockroaches For 25 million Years

An Oregon State University study has identified four new species of parasitic, cockroach-killing ensign wasps that became encased in tree resin 25 million years ago and were preserved as the resin fossilized into amber.

Modern Humans Reached Westernmost Europe 5,000 Years Earlier Than Previously Known

Modern humans arrived in the westernmost part of Europe 41,000 - 38,000 years ago, about 5,000 years earlier than previously known, according to Jonathan Haws, Ph.D., professor and chair of the Department of Anthropology at the University of Louisville, and an international team of researchers.

Akrotiri – The Ancient Town Buried by a Volcano

Akrotiri is an archaeological site and a Cycladic Bronze Age town, located on the Greek island of Santorini (Thera) near the present-day village of Akrotiri (for which the prehistoric site is named).

Popular stories

The Secret Hellfire Club and the Hellfire Caves

The Hellfire Club was an exclusive membership-based organisation for high-society rakes, that was first founded in London in 1718, by Philip, Duke of Wharton, and several of society's elites.

Port Royal – The Sodom of the New World

Port Royal, originally named Cagway was an English harbour town and base of operations for buccaneers and privateers (pirates) until the great earthquake of 1692.

Matthew Hopkins – The Real Witch-Hunter

Matthew Hopkins was an infamous witch-hunter during the 17th century, who published “The Discovery of Witches” in 1647, and whose witch-hunting methods were applied during the notorious Salem Witch Trials in colonial Massachusetts.

Did Corn Fuel Cahokia’s Rise?

A new study suggests that corn was the staple subsistence crop that allowed the pre-Columbian city of Cahokia to rise to prominence and flourish for nearly 300 years.