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Tydskrif vir Geesteswetenskappe

On-line version ISSN 2224-7912
Print version ISSN 0041-4751

Abstract

SLABBERT, Ruhan; SWANEPOEL, Liani C.  and  CORNELIUS, Izak. What's your mummy doing? An overview of the status of mummy research with reference to the 8th world congress. Tydskr. geesteswet. [online]. 2015, vol.55, n.1, pp.01-14. ISSN 2224-7912.  http://dx.doi.org/10.17159/2224-7912/2015/V55N1A1.

The aim of this article is to summarise the current state of mummy research by describing all the themes andfields of study which were covered during the 8th World Congress on Mummy Studies. Mummies are exceptional and unique sources of information about the past. The study of mummies gives us insight into the lives of peoples from bygone eras and their cultures. A mummy is the preserved body of either a human or an animal and includes skin, hair and flesh, regardless of whether it was created by natural processes or artificial methods. The best-known mummies are those from ancient Egypt, but mummies are found all over the world, from Europe to South America and even Australia. Mummification is the process whereby a mummy is created. A distinction is made between natural mummification and artificial or rather intentional mummification. Both the technical and religious aspects of mummification are of great importance when studying the funeral practices of ancient societies. Mummies have always fascinated the scientific community as well as everyday folk, a trend that continues to this day. The study of mummies and the processes and mechanisms responsible for mummification has a long and varied history. Modern mummy research is an interdisciplinary field which makes use of highly advanced experimental and analytical methodologies. Anthropologists, anatomists, chemists, physicists, biologists, geneticists and other specialists are working together to reveal the secrets of mummies. To facilitate this atmosphere of collaboration the 8th World Congress on Mummy Studies was held in Rio de Janeiro in Brazil from 6 to 9 August 2013. This congress brought together a number of scientists who work on mummies and their paraphernalia. The 8th congress exhibited the work of various internationally recognised researchers - in the form of 99 papers and 45 posters. Two posters even presented work that was done in Southern Africa, namely the study of ancient Egyptian animal mummies in Iziko Museums of South Africa (Cape Town) and the study of the Tuli mummy which was found in Botswana. Other work that was presented at this congress covered a number of scientific disciplines. The study of ancient DNA has grown in popularity as the advances in technology increased. Ancient DNA is useful in studying human population history and the evolution of diseases such as tuberculosis. Techniques such as gas chromatography-mass spectrometry (GC-MS) and high performance liquid chromatography (HPLC) are also popular when studying ancient pathogens. The most popular technique used by scientists presenting at the congress was computed tomography, better known as CT-scanning. This technology uses x-rays to create cross-sections or whole three-dimensional images of both organic and inorganic samples. This technique is perfect for nondestructive and non-invasive studies of mummified materials. Researchers can use this technology to perform a virtual autopsy on valuable specimens without cutting or removing anything. Information can be gathered on the health status of the mummy. The presence of tuberculosis lesions, heart disease, skeletal deformities and dental pathologies can be studied using CT-scanning technologies. Other objects associated with mummies and mummy burials can also be examined with CT-scanning. Amulets, jewellery and other known or unidentified trinkets found in mummy bundles can be seen in the scanning data and isolated to be studied in more detail. The congress showed that the scientific study of mummies is a healthy and growing field. However, the only criticism about the congress is the excessive emphasis on the pure scientific studies while the cultural and social interpretation of the data and the mummies are being neglected to a great extent. The natural, medical and chemical sciences are well represented and the data are valuable, but a true integration of the social sciences and natural sciences is still insufficient. The importance and scientific value of the congress, if such a balanced combination can be achieved in future, will increase greatly.

Keywords : animal mummies; CT-scanning; DNA; Egypt; Europe; human mummies; natural sciences; pathogens; pathology; pests; social sciences; South America.

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