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Gebelein Man: virtual autopsy, exploring a natural mummy from early Egypt

This man died more than five thousand years ago and was buried at the site of Gebelein, in Upper Egypt. The reconstruction of his grave illustrates the early Egyptian custom of placing the body in a contracted, foetal position, usually on the left side, with the head to the south, facing the west, the land of the dead where he would be reborn. Around him were all the things he might need for his afterlife, especially pottery to hold and serve food.
Before the pharaohs

In the Predynastic period (4400-3100 B.C.E.), the time before the pharaohs, the dead were buried in shallow graves cut into the desert sand. The graves were often lined with reed mats, making them like a bed, and the body was covered with linen or skins and more mats, like a blanket, before the grave was refilled and perhaps topped by a mound of dirt. Contact with the hot dry sand naturally preserved the bodies because the sand absorbed the water that constitutes approximately 75% by weight of the human body. Bacteria cannot breed without moisture and as a result, the bodies frequently did not decay, but simply dried out. The body of this man is remarkably well-preserved, even down to his finger-nails and hair, which has probably faded with time.

Chance discoveries of these sand-dried mummies (for example, when a grave was disturbed by animals or robbers), may have promoted the belief that physical preservation of the body was necessary for the afterlife. This may have led the later Egyptians to develop means of artificial mummification after the introduction of coffins and deeper graves separated the body from the natural drying effects of the sand.

The objects that surrounded Gebelein Man in his original burial are unknown. On display is a selection of typical grave-goods from other graves of the middle Predynastic period (about 3500 B.C.E.), the time we believe he died. Attempts to date the body using Carbon 14 (the radiocarbon method) have so far been unsuccessful.

He has been in the British Museum collection for over 100 years, but it was not until 2012 that he was CT scanned for the first time. Detailed images created from the CT scans' high resolution X-rays are allowing us to look inside his body and learn about his life and his death in ways never before possible. © Trustees of the British Museum.
Created by British Museum.

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Video transcript

In September 2012, the British Museum's most famous natural mummy was taken out of the building for the first time in over a hundred years One of the museum's oldest humans was about to be examined with the newest technology And the results would be a revelation Gebelein man is one of a small group six or seven bodies of this kind which are in the British Museum All of these came from the site of Gebelein in the 1890's Gebelein man himself was put on display straight away and he's always attracted tremendous attention We are about to take Gebelein man to the common hospital to have him CT scanned and we hope to find out a lot more about his past biology his past health, how old he was when he died to get a better understanding of what it was like to live and die in pre-dynastic Egypt His preservation is entirely due to natural processes You would call a body like this a natural mummy This is the area where you can see the scapular because there is a dent in it And I'm not sure what's happening here so that would be an area to have a closer look I won't have to talk to him and I won't have to ask him questions and won't have to give an injection and also he won't hopefully feel claustrophobic As far as I am aware pre-dynastic mummies have never been CT scanned before Is it possible to look at the left scapular We found out that most of his bones appear to have just fused the head of his humerus and the head of his femur both of which suggest he's just finished growing and he probably died between the ages of 18 and 21 In the more traditional Egyptian mummy all the internal organs have been taken out during embalming sometimes put back in after they were preserved But you will not ever see the brain because they didn't keep that In the case of Gebelein man we would hope to see all of these organs preserved just by drying We have teams excavating in Egypt and in Northern Sudan every year for months at a time excavating both the towns people lived in and also the places they buried their dead There's a real focus at the moment into trying to investigate what life was like for the ordinary Egyptians This looks structural to me, see the way there's that line there So much of the study of ancient Egypt has been about the temples and the tombs of kings and the gold masks you had on the burials of pharaohs and so on but that really was the very small part of the population maybe less than 1% what about all the ordinary people, the farmers that lived along the Nile What was their health like? What was their life like? A month later the British Museum team has come to the Natural History Museum to see the first results of the scans of Gebelein Man Thanks very much for coming over this was originally going to be a very quiet little tête a tête sort of scientists to scientists sort of thing but it's sort of grown a little bit which is great and we are very pleased that you could all make it here Ground-breaking real time visualisation technology pioneered in Sweden is now installed on a new autopsy table which can be used by the public Now if we actually take a slice from this direction now look down inside the body we'll see a lot of the soft tissue Well I think it will be a fantastic tool to bring into the galleries Our visitors will be able to explore this mummy who's been known in our galleries for over a century And as we all learn at school the Egyptians took the brain out through the nose as part of that artificial mummification process so this fantastic tool which is like a virtual surgeon's knife taking away the dome of the skull and then the ability to see inside and the preservation of a brain which is what over five thousand years old? Six thousand Based on the way he's been treated he should date to about 3600 BC maybe 3700 so he's old and it's so neat to apply this new technology to something just this old and to get these results to see potentially what he might have eaten on his last day I mean it's really very exciting But what did happen on Gebelein's last day? He was young and robust, so what or who killed him? The skeleton and soft tissue now revealed with digital technology provide evidence for how this man died thousands of years ago We did notice that a lot of the rips had been broken all down kind of a line We can see that the one below this area is quite interesting the fact that you got fragments which are still floating in soft tissue This shoulder bone had a big indentation in it the rib immediately below also looks like it's been punctured shattered into fragments which have embedded themselves into the muscle tissue and they're still embedded there today The fracture pattern suggests that this was done when the bone was fresh all of which points to him being stabbed in the back It's very likely that what we've had on display in the galleries for many many years was the victim of a murder and it's only now that we're truly finding out who this person was