Archive for the ‘Modern(ish)’ Category

Stolen Swedish royal jewels found on garbage can

Wednesday, February 6th, 2019

Three priceless pieces of Swedish royal funerary regalia stolen from Strängnäs Cathedral last year have been found on top of a garbage can in Åkersberga, 20 miles outside of Stockholm. A security guard discovered the loot at 1:00 AM yesterday and alerted the police. Experts are currently confirming that all of the stolen objects are present and assessing their condition.

The purloined regalia were a gold crown and an orb made for the funeral of King Karl IX in 1611, and a bejeweled crown made for his Queen Consort Kristina’s funeral in 1625. Karl’s crown and orb were buried with him but later exhumed and exhibited in a locked and alarmed display case.

The objects were stolen on July 31st, 2018, in a daring lunchtime heist by two men who smashed the glass display case and ran. With the security alarm blaring and the authorities rapidly descending upon the cathedral, the thieves rode women’s bicycles to the shore of Lake Malaren and fled in a getaway boat, a small white or blue motorboat had moored just below the cathedral. It’s possible they may have also used jet skis to flee further.

Witnesses described one man as being about 5’11” of slim build wearing a light beige jacket and dark pants. The other was slightly shorter and more muscular in build wearing a dark jacket and with either a dark head covering or dark hair. They were seen heading east, but there are hundreds of little islands in Malaren, Sweden’s third largest freshwater lake, and therefore plenty of hiding places.

The crowns and orb are priceless objects of cultural patrimony. The gold, silver, pearls and gemstones are technically worth around $7 million, but there is no amount of money that can replace them even though they are insured. Nobody in their right mind would buy such hot goods anyway, as the thieves doubtless discovered.

Investigations are ongoing. They have focused on a criminal group centered in Stockholm. One 22-year-old man was arrested last September after his blood was found at the crime scene and on one of the bicycles. The man, whose identity has not been revealed, claims he is innocent of the theft of the jewels, that he just had the incredibly bad luck to steal the bike and motorboat used in the heist. His trial was underway when the pieces were found. It has been temporarily put on hold and will resume on February 15th. Meanwhile, police are still looking to bring accomplices and other involved parties to justice.


WWI grenade found among potatoes at chip factory

Monday, February 4th, 2019

A World War I hand grenade found a perfect disguise in a shipment of potatoes sent to a Hong Kong chip factory. The potatoes were harvested in France where for four years artillery rained down on the fields of the Western Front in brutally futile attempts to gain a few inches of ground. Unexploded ordnance from the First World War is regularly churned up during agricultural work. This one was of German manufacture, weighs two pounds and is three inches in diameter, so the dimensions of a potato but much heavier.

According to military historian Dave Macri, the field where the potatoes were harvested was believed to contain a trench during the first world war.

“If it was covered in mud, the grenade was likely to have been left behind, dropped by soldiers there during the war, or left there after it was thrown [by enemies].

The ditch was then filled up and used as a growing field, and the explosive was tossed into the mix of harvested potatoes … and sent to Hong Kong.”

Whatever machine digs up potatoes for the global market can’t tell the difference between a bomb and a bomb-shaped root vegetable, so it went on its merry way to Hong Kong. By some stroke of luck, none of the jostling, conveying, dumping and stevedoring it experienced on its long journey woke it up from its long slumber. It was only when it arrived at Calbee Four Seas Company’s chip factory that its sorting machines detected that one of the potatoes was actually a bomb caked in rust and mud.

The University of Hong Kong professor said the grenade could still be dangerous even if it was not triggered. “If you’re standing close, within five feet, you could get wounded or even killed [if the device somehow went off], but it’s not the kind of thing that can bring down a whole building.

“But chances are, the weapon was never armed because to ignite it, you have to withdraw the safety pin and release a lever. And since it didn’t go off, it was probably never triggered,” Macri added.

Hong Kong firefighters and police were called in to disable and remove the device safely. On Saturday, explosive experts used a high-pressure water firing technique to detonate the grenade outside the factory. They did us the courtesy of recording the event.


Facial Recognition for Coins

Saturday, February 2nd, 2019

Researchers at the Fraunhofer Institute for Factory Operation and Automation IFF in Magdeburg, Germany, have developed a specialized scanner and software akin to facial recognition technology to record historic coins in heretofore impossible detail. Coins collections poise significant inventory and conservation problems for the institutions that hold them. They can’t be labelled or barcoded. They can’t be marked in any way without interfering with the surface.

The Saxony-Anhalt State Office for Heritage Management and Archaeology has 20,000 coins in its archives. Keeping proper track of them for loans to museums, preventing damage, even ascertaining their authenticity pose significant challenges to the staff. The ever-expanding collection has to be documented by hand, a Herculean labour that is never complete and highly prone to error. In conjunction with a larger project of digitization of the State Office’s archaeological materials, the Fraunhofer Institute was employed to devise a system that would scan the coins in its collection.

“The State Office aimed to digitize its complete numismatic collection. This gave rise to the idea of creating a digital fingerprint with which individual coins can be recognized and classified – much like facial recognition of people. The fingerprint replaces the barcode as it were,” says Dr. Christian Teutsch, research scientist at the Fraunhofer IFF, recounting the first contact with the State Office for Heritage Management and Archaeology. The closely collaborating partners designed a visual data acquisition system and software analysis system in their project “Digital Fingerprints of Archaeological Finds: Artifact Identification and Recognition Prototype”, which does this by digitizing and exactly describing the old coins and obtaining unique signatures from the coins. The scanning system had to achieve a recognition rate of ninety-eight percent or more, operate contactless, and acquire the data of both faces. Gold, silver, bronze and copper coins with diameters of five to seventy-five millimeters were tested.

The novel scanner O.S.C.A.R., short for Optical System for Coin Analysis and Recognition, not only scans coins’ visual features but also the minutest signs of wear such as scratching, clipping, contours, edges, pitting and denting, which render an object unique. This is indispensable for being able to identify many coins of the same type. “Obviously, changes can be detected when a coin is scanned twice. This makes it possible, for instance, to check upon the return of loaned coins whether scratching has occurred, the artifact has been damaged or even if it is a fake,” says the engineer, an employee of the Measurement and Testing Technology Business Unit.

It’s a simple process that takes no more than a few seconds. The barcode on the bag that holds a coin is first scanned, then the coin is put under the scanner. With the push of a button, the scanner records base color and surface features, more than 1000 of them, of both sides of the coins. Measurements and color charts standardize the data which is then transferred to the software. It analyzes the data to create a digital signature that is saved in a searchable database. That makes the coins themselves and everything known about them instantly accessible even if the barcoded bag is lost. It also makes it a simple matter to make this rich data available to scholars and the interested public. Numismatists and collectors can use the scan information to make new connections between coins, their find locations and all the history that is writ on their surfaces.

The project has been such a smashing success that 10,000 coins in the State Office collection have already been scanned. The remaining half will be digitized shortly.

This is a major breakthrough and not just for numismatics collections. The scanner is targeted to coins, but it could be modified for use with paintings, artifacts, documents, ephemera, anything in heritage collections.


Mummy remains studied for rheumatoid arthritis

Friday, February 1st, 2019

The naturally mummified remains of an adult male found in the town Guano, in Ecuador’s Chimborazo Province, is being studied to learn about the spread of rheumatoid arthritis.

The Guano Mummy was discovered after an earthquake struck the town on August 5th, 1949. In the rubble of the Asunción Church, rescuers found the well-preserved remains of a man wedged between two of only three sections of walls that remained of the 400-year-old church. The man was positioned vertically, as if standing, between the walls. He had not deliberately mummified, and neither was the mummified mouse found next to him. It seems the body was sprinkled with lime to speed decomposition but instead the dry, cold conditions preserved his tissues (and those of the unfortunate rodent) in excellent condition. His clothing also survived in remarkably fine fettle. There was a purple scarf wrapped around his jaw (perhaps to keep his mouth from gaping open) and a long white robe covering his body.

After its discovery, the mummy was moved to the town library where it was displayed in less than adequate conditions which caused some deterioration of the organic remains. In 2003, a team of researchers from the US did a thorough study of the mummy, X-raying and carbon-dating it to the 16th century. The date coupled with archival research pointed to a possible candidate for the identity of the mummy: Fray Lázaro de la Cruz de Santofimia, a Franciscan monk who traveled to Guano from Spain to take charge of the religious community there.

Asunción Church was built between approximately 1560 and 1572, commissioned by the Franciscan missionaries who were evangelizing the indigenous Puruhá culture. Later a monastery and cemetery would be built next to the church. Fray Lázaro’s position as the first guardian of the church and monastery could have been the reason he was buried in such an unusual position and location, standing guard over his charges for eternity, as it were.

French pathologist Dr. Philippe Charlier and his team spent two days studying the mummy and taking samples at the laboratory of the National Institute of Cultural Heritage in Quito. One major draw is the evidence of rheumatoid arthritis found in the surviving tissue.

Rheumatoid arthritis was first found in America before the arrival of Christopher Columbus.

Dr Charlier explained: “The mummy of Guano may be the link missing that will allow us to understand how this disease, which was originally American, then became a global disease by hybridisation, by the confrontation between two worlds.”

The examination has found a likely cause of death: a chin fistula that became infected and caused fatal sepsis.

Charlier’s study will also perform a new radiocarbon analysis and DNA analysis (RA is associated with several genetic markers). The dating and genetic testing may help confirm or deny the mummy’s identity. He questions the Fray Lázaro identification because the man was not dressed in the usual Franciscan garb — the textiles are more expensive than the brown homespun of the monk’s habit — nor was he interred with expected Christian accouterments like a rosary and coffin.


Fragments of 13th c. Merlin text found in Bristol library

Thursday, January 31st, 2019

Fragments of a 13th century Old French text of Arthurian legends have been found inside a series of later bound books in the Bristol Central Library. Seven handwritten manuscript fragments from the Vulgate Cycle, also known as the Lancelot-Grail Cycle, were discovered by the University of Bristol’s Special Collections Librarian Michael Richardson while perusing a collection of the works of 15th century French scholar Jean Gerson.

The four-volume edition of Gerson’s works was printed in Strasbourg between 1494 and 1502, but it seems they were not bound because the first binding appears to have been done in England in the early 16th century. That’s when the fragments of the Old French manuscript became integrated into the books. Parchment was expensive and bookbinders often reused old “waste materials” in their bindings instead of using clean sheets. There is evidence on the leaves that at this time they were pasted on the front and back boards of the books. When the books were rebound at a later date, the pasted fragments were unglued from the boards and used as flyleaves (those blank pages you still find today at the beginning and end of a volume).

Richardson recognized the names of key figures, most notably Merlin, from the Arthurian tales on the oft-recycled parchment pieces. He called in Dr. Leah Tether, an Arthurian expert from the University of Bristol’s English department to assess the significance of those names and manuscript fragments. She identified them as pieces of the Vulgate Cycle, a telling of the Arthur legend that predates all English-language versions and is thought to have been Sir Thomas Malory’s source for Le Morte D’Arthur. There are other surviving examples of the text, these fragments have intriguing differences in the narrative.

The seven leaves represent a continuous sequence of the Estoire de Merlin narrative (though they are bound ‘out of chronological order’ in their current form) – specifically in a section known as the ‘Suite Vulgate de Merlin’ (Vulgate Continuation of Merlin).

Events begin with Arthur, Merlin, Gawain and assorted other knights, including King Ban and King Bohors preparing for battle at Trebes against King Claudas and his followers.

Merlin has been strategising the best plan of attack. There follows a long description of the battle. At one point, Arthur’s forces look beleaguered but a speech from Merlin urging them to avoid cowardice leads them to fight again, and Merlin leads the charge using Sir Kay’s special dragon standard that Merlin had gifted to Arthur, which breathes real fire.

In the end, Arthur’s forces are triumphant. Kings Arthur, Ban and Bohors, and the other knights, are accommodated in the Castle of Trebes.

That night Ban and his wife, Queen Elaine, conceive a child. Elaine then has a strange dream about a lion and a leopard, the latter of which seems to prefigure Elaine’s yet-to-be-born son. Ban also has a terrifying dream in which he hears a voice. He wakes up and goes to church.

We are told that during Arthur’s stay in the kingdom of Benoic for the next month, Ban and Bohors are able to continue to fight and defeat Claudas, but after Arthur leaves to look after matters in his own lands, Claudas is once again triumphant.

The narrative then moves to Merlin’s partial explanation of the dreams of Ban and Elaine. Afterwards, Merlin meets Viviane who wishes to know how to put people to sleep (she wishes to do this to her parents). Merlin stays with Viviane for a week, apparently falling in love with her, but resists sleeping with her. Merlin then returns to Benoic to rejoin Arthur and his companions.

In the newly discovered fragments, there tend to be longer, more detailed descriptions of the actions of various characters in certain sections – particularly in relation to battle action.

Where Merlin gives instructions for who will lead each of the four divisions of Arthur’s forces, the characters responsible for each division are different from the version of the narrative we know.

Sometimes only small details are changed – for example, King Claudas is wounded through the thighs in the known version, where in the fragments the nature of the wound is left unsaid, which may lead to different interpretations of the text owing to thigh wounds often being used as metaphors for impotence or castration.

The damage to the fragments from their use in two different bindings will make it challenging to fully decipher the text. Researchers will use infrared imaging, if necessary, to read through the damage and publish a full transcript of the exciting new finds.


16th c. Greenland mummies had heart disease

Tuesday, January 29th, 2019

Researchers have discovered evidence of heart disease in five mummies from 16th-century Greenland. An international team of anthropologists, medical doctors and technicians examined the mummies with a Computed Tomography scanner in the Brigham and Women’s Hospital (BWH) Shapiro Cardiovascular Center last year. They were looking for arterial plaque, the material that lines the arteries, hardening and narrowing them and creating blockages that can result in fatal heart attacks and strokes.

Atherosclerosis and the cardiovascular disease that result from it is the leading cause of death in the U.S. today. The research team wanted to find out if it was common 500 years ago in Greenland, part of a larger project investigating the heart health of mummified human remains from pre-industrial hunter-gatherer communities.

The mummies of four young adults and one child from the Inuit community in 16th century Greenland were subjected to high-resolution CT scans. The organs were not intact inside the bodies, but even without hearts to explore, researchers were able to detect hardened calcium, ie plaque, in the remains of blood vessels in the chest and neck.

From Egypt to Mongolia and now Greenland, mummies throughout the ages have shown evidence of atherosclerosis. The Greenland mummies were of particular interest due to their diet, which would have primarily consisted of fish and sea mammals.

While increased fish consumption is commonly touted as heart-healthy — which may make the findings of atherosclerosis seem surprising — [associate director of the Brigham’s Cardiovascular Imaging Program Dr. Ron] Blankstein emphasized that scientists still have much to learn about its relationship to cardiovascular health. For example, although it is known that consuming fish rich in omega-3 fats has benefits, some types of fish can also be high in cholesterol and, in the current era, contain toxins like mercury or polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) that may pose risk, he said.

Lifestyle factors, such as exposure to cooking smoke in their dwellings, may have also contributed to the mummified individuals developing cardiovascular disease during their lifetimes, Blankstein said. Given that and the small sample sizes of these mummy scans, he noted that the team’s findings shouldn’t be taken too much to heart, so to speak.


New LED lighting illuminates St. Peter’s Basilica

Saturday, January 26th, 2019

The faithful assembled for Christmas mass were the first to be bathed in the glow of the new LED lighting system which was officially inaugurated yesterday in St. Peter’s Basilica. The product of two years of planning and work, the illumination project hits every possible mark: energy efficiency, unobtrusiveness, brightness, focal points, enabling the latest in video technology.

There are 780 new fixtures installed in the basilica at heights ranging from 40 and 360 feet, all artfully camouflaged. They add up to around 100,000 LEDs generating more than 10 times the light with 80% fewer fixtures. The energy savings are enormous, up to 90% over the previous system. The lighting can be controlled in minute detail by a digital system which will allow different elements to be emphasized on different occasions. It will allow video capture in 4K and 8K for ultra high definition television broadcasts and recordings.

More than 27,000 people visit St. Peter’s every day. These improvements will enhance the experience for the thousands of pilgrims who flock to the basilica to celebrate religious events, making it much easier to get a decent view of the Pope and other concelebrants. An even greater advantage will go to the lovers of art and architecture who also flock to St. Peter’s and wait in its insane lines without the consolation of religious fervor. The architectural and decorative features of one of the masterpieces of Renaissance construction are now visible in a whole new depth. The areas that were lit by the old system, like the main dome, originally designed by Bramante and redesigned and strengthened by Michelangelo, are now so clearly lit that details can be seen which were previously invisible. Places that could not be lit under the old regime are now dazzling, including the octagons and mini-cupolas of the side aisles. You simply could not see the rich mosaics that adorn these features from the ground unaided. Five hundred years ago they were lit by candles, so effectively not lit at all. Now they’re plain as day for the first time in half a millennium.

The photographs look so good I might even brave those insane lines myself next time I’m in Rome, which is saying something because I took one look at them and ran the hell out of there in 2017. I didn’t even attempt it in 2018.


Conservation of Tutankhamen’s tomb complete

Thursday, January 24th, 2019

Ten years after it began, the conservation of the tomb of Tutankhamen in Egypt’s Valley of the Kings is complete. Egypt’s Ministry of Antiquities and the Getty Conservation Institute worked together to make a thorough study of the site, assess its long-term conservation needs and train a new generation of conservators even as they cleaned and stabilized the elaborate wall paintings in the inner chamber. They also created a new entrance space and viewing platform that will allow visitors to see the most famous pharaonic tomb ever discovered while protecting it from the barrage of damage that inevitably accompanies human intrusion.

Discovered in 1922 by Howard Carter, the tomb of 18th Dynasty pharaoh Tutankhamen was tiny but mighty. It is one of the smallest in the Valley of the Kings and of the four rooms, only the burial chamber was painted, but the small space was crammed to the gills with treasure. A fluke of nature had protected it since the king’s premature death around age 19 in 1323 B.C.: debris from a flood blocked the entrance shortly after the tomb was sealed. Grave robbers made several attempts to break into the tomb, but were thwarted by the blockage and soon the short-lived king was forgotten.

The discovery of so immense a treasure in the small tomb of a so inconsequential a king caused a cultural sensation that is still ongoing. It took a decade to remove and document all the riches of his tomb. In the 1930s, it was opened to a public hungry to see the find site and for decades the tiny space was filled with thousands of dirty, moist, carbon dioxide-exhaling mammals.

Humidity and CO2 feed microorganisms that can damage the paint, and fluctuating moisture levels can cause flaking and bubbling. There were also areas of physical damage to the paint, scratches and scrapes caused by tourists and accidental contact from film equipment squeezed into the tight space. Abrasive dust brought it by countless feet coated the walls, dimming the colors of the paint and putting it at risk of even more loss.

Concerned about the delicate condition of the tomb — particularly the brown spots on the paintings known to be microbial growths — in 2009 the Ministry of Antiquities requested the assistance of the Getty Conservation Institute in developing a program of conservation and management.

The GCI-Egyptian project went on to carry out the most thorough study of the tomb’s condition since Carter’s time. The team of experts included an Egyptologist to conduct background research; environmental engineers to investigate the tomb’s microclimatic conditions; microbiologists to study the brown spots; documentation specialists, architects, and designers to upgrade the tomb’s infrastructure; scientists to study the original materials of the wall paintings; and conservators to carry out condition recording and treatment.

“As in all of our collaborative projects, the GCI has taken the long view, with the intent to provide sustainable conservation and site management outcomes,” says Neville Agnew, senior principal project specialist at the Getty Conservation Institute. “This involves systematic planning, documentation, scientific investigation, personnel training and a sensitive approach to treatment.”

The project team found the wall paintings to be in relatively stable condition, apart from localized flaking and loss of paint that was caused by both inconsistencies in the materials used and their application, as well as damage caused by visitors. Newly designed barriers now restrict visitor access in these areas to reduce the risk of future damage. The paintings were stabilized through dust removal and reduction of coatings from previous treatments, and condition monitoring was also established to better evaluate future changes.

Also addressed were the mysterious brown spots on the wall paintings. They were already present when Carter first entered the tomb, and a comparison of the spots with historic photographs from the mid-1920s showed no new growth. To confirm this finding, DNA and chemical analysis were undertaken and confirmed the spots to be microbiological in origin but dead and thus no longer a threat. Because the spots have penetrated into the paint layer, they have not been removed since this would harm the wall paintings.

Restored, stabilized and with new lighting, ventilation and information panels, the tomb of Tutankhamen offers a much improved experience for visitors as well as more secure, controlled conditions to preserve the priceless archaeological material. That includes a few important pieces on display as well as the tomb itself: Tutankhamen’s mummy on view in an oxygen-free display case, the stone sarcophagus and the outermost coffin made of gilded wood.


World’s oldest classroom periodic table found at St. Andrews

Friday, January 18th, 2019

A classroom periodic table of the elements found at the University of St Andrews in Scotland is the oldest known in the world. It was discovered in 2014 by Dr. Alan Aitken in the storage area of the School of Chemistry. He was cleaning out the clutter of chemicals and equipment that had built up since 1968 when he came across a roll of old teaching charts. Among them was a chart of the period table that was so old the paper flaked to the touch.

Siberian chemist Dmitri Mendeleev first arranged the known elements by their atomic mass after seeing them all fall into place in a dream. He was writing a textbook for the chemistry course he was teaching, and realized elements with similar properties also had similar atomic weights, or weights that increased at a regular rate. He presented his chart and the periodicity of the elements to the Russian Chemical Society in 1869. Other scientists had independently realized that the elements could be organized in periods and created tables in the 1860s, but Mendeleev’s was the simplest and made predictions that would be confirmed accurate with the discovery of more elements.

In 1871, he released a second table correcting a few errors in the first. The chart found at St. Andrews is similar to the 1871 version, but printed some years later.

The table is annotated in German, and an inscription at the bottom left – ‘Verlag v. Lenoir & Forster, Wien’­ – identifies a scientific printer who operated in Vienna between 1875 and 1888. Another inscription – ‘Lith. von Ant. Hartinger & Sohn, Wien’ – identifies the chart’s lithographer, who died in 1890. Working with the University’s Special Collections team, the University sought advice from a series of international experts. Following further investigations, no earlier lecture chart of the table appears to exist. Professor Eric Scerri, an expert on the history of the periodic table based at the University of California, Los Angeles, dated the table to between 1879 and 1886 based on the represented elements. For example, both gallium and scandium, discovered in 1875 and 1879 respectively, are present, while germanium, discovered in 1886, is not. […]

A researcher at the University, M Pilar Gil from Special Collections, found an entry in the financial transaction records in the St Andrews archives recording the purchase of an 1885 table by Thomas Purdie from the German catalogue of C Gerhardt (Bonn) for the sum of 3 Marks in October 1888. This was paid from the Class Account and included in the Chemistry Class Expenses for the session 1888-1889. This entry and evidence of purchase by mail order appears to define the provenance of the St Andrews periodic table. It was produced in Vienna in 1885 and was purchased by Purdie in 1888. Purdie was professor of Chemistry from 1884 until his retirement in 1909. This in itself is not so remarkable, a new professor setting up in a new position would want the latest research and teaching materials. Purdie’s appointment was a step-change in experimental research at St Andrews. The previous incumbents had been mineralogists, whereas Purdie had been influenced by the substantial growth that was taking place in organic chemistry at that time. What is remarkable however is that this table appears to be the only surviving one from this period across Europe. The University is keen to know if there are others out there that are close in age or even predate the St Andrews table.

The years spent rolled up in a chem lab closet have not been kind to this possibly unique artifact of science history. The paper was mounted on a heavy linen backing which exacerbated its fragile condition and an immediate intervention was necessary to conserve it. Experts from the University’s Special Collections secured a grant to treat the chart. Working with private conservator Richard Hawkes, Special Collections conservators cleaned it, separated it from the linen backing, washed it in a neutral solution to remove discoloration, de-acified the paper in an alkaline bath, and repaired areas of loss with Japanese kozo (mulberry bush) paper and wheat starch paste.

The periodic table is now stable and being maintained in climate-controlled conditions in Special Collections’ stores. It is too delicate a piece to go on public display. Thankfully the grant money also made possible the creation of a full-size replica. The facsimile is on display in the School of Chemistry.


Mummy identified as Ptolemy II’s doctor

Thursday, January 17th, 2019

After more than two years of study, researchers at the National Archaeological Museum of Spain have discovered the identity of a mummy that has been part of the museum collection since the twenties: Nespamedu, a priest and doctor to Pharaoh Ptolemy II or Ptolemy III.

It is not known where the mummy was unearthed. It was donated to the museum in 1925 from the family of Ignacio Bauer. Bauer had acquired it from the Museum of Cairo at an undetermined time. Current research suggests Nespamedu was buried in the ancient necropolis of Saqqara where elite nobles were still being interred in the Ptolemaic era. In order to find out more about the person inside the bandages, the mummy was transported to Madrid’s Quirónsalud University Hospital in 2016 where it was given extensive computed tomography scans.

The remains date to around 300-200 A.D. and the individual was around 50 years old when he died. His body was carefully mummified and coated in a thick layer of resin to preserve it. It was then wrapped in many feet of linen strips, thinner around the head, thicker in the abdomen, lower back and legs to fill in and even out the body. Resins and oils were applied to the first layer of linen, and numerous amulets nestled in key positions before the body was wrapped in a second layer of linen and then a full-body shroud.

Mummification complete, Nespamedu’s body was covered in expensive gilded cartonnage — linen coated in plaster — which has survived in excellent condition. There are five sections of it, a funerary mask, a collar, a breastplate, a single cover for both legs, and feet covers. The first and last of these entirely encase the head and feet. The cartonnage sections are decorated with paint on the surface and reliefs and appliques of religious iconography and inscriptions were embedded in the plaster.

The inscription on the breastplate names the mummy as Nespamedu, meaning “He who belongs to the scepter,” son of Pasenet his father and the lady of the house Tahutnetcher his mother. Nespamedu’s titles are “Server of Imhotep the Great, son of Ptah,” and “Pharaoh’s doctor.” The former title refers to him having been a priest at the temple of Imhotep. The historical Imhotep was chancellor to Pharaoh Djoser and the builder of the step pyramid, but over the centuries he was deified and associated with Thoth, god of architects and scribes. He was still worshiped under the rule of the Ptolemies, only with a twist: the Greeks associated him with Asklepios, god of medicine.

There were at least three temples dedicated to Imhotep/Asklepios in Egypt, one in Memphis, one in Philae and one in Thebes. The temples were sanitariums, containing pools of sacred water in which the sick would be submerged as they awaited a divine cure. The pharaoh’s doctor was at the top of the temple hierarchy. He was in charge of establishing the standards of education and religious practices. So Nespamedu was not just a priest at the sanctuary of Imhotep/Asklepios, he was the high priest and leader thanks to his second exalted title.

While there is no conclusive evidence of a medical specialty, based on the amulets inserted between the linen layers and clearly seen on the CT scans, researchers think Nespamedu may have been an ancient Egyptian version of an ophthalmologist.

[I]t is the charms and plaques stored within his bandages that are the most revealing. Two groups of eight plaques have shown up on different parts of the mummy in which the four sons of the deity Horus are represented. Another two plaques feature the goddesses Isis and Nephthys, while representations of the mummification of the corpse together with the god Anubis were found at the top of Nespamedu’s legs.

There are also two plaques featuring the god Thoth and the Eye of Horus, symbolizing magic, protection and purification together with a solar symbol that stands for cosmic stability. Thoth is the god of ophthalmologists, as it was he who put Horus’ eye back after he lost it in his battle with Set.

This has led specialists to conclude that Nespamedu chose this god on account of his own profession. “There is nothing casual about the iconography and it is clear that he wanted to register his beliefs and the responsibilities that had elevated him to the upper echelons of society,” states a report published in the last National Archeology Museum’s bulletin. “The fact that he was the pharaoh’s doctor makes us think that part of his life was lived in Alexandria, where Ptolemy had his court.”





November 2020


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