Ancient Egypt continues to throw up one fabulous surprise after another.
Today my colleagues and I published our analysis of an intact Egyptian prehistoric body (from around 3700-3500 BC) that had been housed in a museum in Turin, Italy, since 1901. The results provide strong evidence that embalming was taking place 1,500 years earlier than previously accepted.
The dead man was previously assumed to have been naturally mummified by the desiccating action of the hot, dry desert sand. But now we know it was deliberately preserved.
Together with our previous research, this new information tells us that the prehistoric Egyptians – those living 1,500 or more years before the Pharaohs – already had knowledge of the processes required to preserve the body, and practised a developed religious belief system about the afterlife.
We had hints
Prior to this new study, our analysis of funerary wrappings from prehistoric bodies from sites in central Egypt proved that the ancient Egyptians who lived before the time of the pharaohs used some body preservation techniques.
Reports of pellets of resin in pouches with the bodies in early burials excavated at prehistoric sites at Badari and Mostagedda in Middle Egypt (c. 4500-3350 BC) had made me wonder whether they were already using resin in a rudimentary form of mummification.
Resin is an substance harvested from certain trees, particularly pine, and is a preservative component of embalming mixtures.
In our previous work we did not have whole bodies – only small fragments of linen in British museums. The pieces of fabric were the only surviving evidence the bodies had been wrapped, and had been donated by the excavators in the early 20th century in return for funding for excavation.
But we didn’t have any further samples to expand this work – until now.
Preparing for the afterlife
The central tenet of ancient Egyptian mummification was preservation of a perfect body so that it could enter into the afterlife as a complete entity. If a crocodile had bitten off a leg, a wooden prosthesis would be substituted.
The wrapped bodies at prehistoric sites generally had not come under intense scrutiny when excavated, because in the 19th and early 20th centuries interest was overwhelmingly in the artefacts. Furthermore, there had been no reason to believe that the prehistoric Egyptians were using any preservative balms on their dead.
Like the British, the Italians were conducting their own excavations to fill the Museo Egizio in Turin. Perhaps the best-known archaeologist is Ernesto Schiaparelli, director of the museum between 1895 and 1928.
Schiaparelli went on a number of missions to Egypt to excavate and purchase mummies and artefacts from antiquities dealers, including the prehistoric body in this current study (identified as “Turin S. 293, RCGE 16550”), bought between 1900 and 1901.
It is only one of 20 bodies of this period (c. 3600 BC) in international museums. Although there are few written records on the body’s provenance, Gebelein in Middle Egypt is the most probable source.
A recipe for preservation
In 2014, a research grant from Macquarie University afforded a unique opportunity to forensically examine this Turin mummy.
Working with an international team, we took minute samples of textile and skin for biochemical analysis, radiocarbon dating, textile analysis and DNA analysis of pathogenic bacteria.
The mummy had not undergone conservation in the museum which meant that contamination was minimal, making him an ideal subject for scientific investigation. The downside of not having been conserved and consolidated is that he is extremely fragile and damaged.
Chemical analysis of the residues on the textile wrappings from the torso and wrist using a technique known as gas chromatography-mass spectrometry revealed the presence of a plant oil or animal fat, a sugar/gum, a conifer resin and an aromatic plant extract.
The resin and aromatic plant extracts are the two main antibacterial components that would have repelled insects and preserved the soft tissue underneath. Chemical signatures indicate gentle heating, so it was indeed a “recipe” that was probably applied by dipping the linen into the melted mixture and then wrapping.
Radiocarbon dating of linen – one sample each from the body and the basket of fragments accompanying the body – gave a date range of around 3700-3500 BC. Both samples shared the same early spinning technology observed in Egyptian linen between about 5000 BC and 3600 BC, when a momentous change in the direction of the spin took place.
No pathogenic DNA was detected by metagenomics, either because it had not survived the environmental conditions in Egypt or the museum (which until recently was not climate-controlled).
As a result, we do not know whether he died from an infectious disease. Furthermore, his extremely fragile state prevented him from being moved for X-ray analysis.
Together with our previous research, the information gleaned from this complete mummy tells us that the prehistoric Egyptians already had knowledge of the processes required to preserve the body, as well as an already developed religious belief system about the afterlife.
They had access to resins from the Eastern Mediterranean, suggesting long-distance trade. That similar components were used in the balms in burials 200 km apart, and indeed continued to be used in similar proportions by the pharaonic period embalmers when their skills were at their peak some 2,500 years later, shows the enduring nature of ancient Egyptian ingenuity.
We think of Antarctica as a place to protect. It’s “pristine”, “remote” and “untouched”. (Although a recent discovery reveals it’s less isolated from the world than previously thought.)
But it wasn’t always this way. Between 1961 and 1972 McMurdo Station was home to Antarctica’s first and only portable nuclear reactor, known as PM-3A, or “Nukey Poo.” The little-known story of Nukey Poo offers a useful lens through which to examine two ways of valuing the far south: as a place to develop, or a place to protect.
The story of Nukey Poo
By the late 1950s nuclear power was viewed with optimism, as an exciting new solution to both the world’s energy and social problems. The Antarctic Treaty was signed in 1959, designating Antarctica as a place for international scientific cooperation. Both the USA and USSR were original signatories, and both were concerned about the possible use of nuclear weapons in the far south.
The Antarctic Treaty therefore included freedom of inspection of all facilities, and stipulated “any nuclear explosions in Antarctica and the disposal there of radioactive waste material shall be prohibited”.
When Nukey Poo was built by the US Navy it was described by Admiral George Dufek as “a dramatic new era in man’s conquest of the remotest continent.”
While the early explorers set out with flags, pitting their bodies against the elements to claim new territory, nuclear technology represented a modern way for man to triumph over the hostile environment. PM-3A was seen as a trailblazer, and – if all went well – it was planned to be first of many installed in Antarctica.
Dufek also envisaged nuclear energy making possible a wide range of human activities in the far south. His imagined version of “Antarctica in the Year 2000” included nuclear-driven greenhouse crop production, geoengineering of the world’s weather, and mining ventures that helped broker world peace.
While geoengineering in the forms of slowing the melt of glacial ice, solar geoengineering, and marine geoengineering continue to be discussed, mining is prohibited by the 1991 Protocol on Environmental Protection to the Antarctic Treaty. Contemporary visions of Antarctic futures tend to focus on environmental change and reducing human impacts, rather than enhancing the human presence.
Nuclear optimism fades
“Nukey Poo” began producing power for the McMurdo station in 1962, and was refuelled for the first time in 1964. A decade later, the optimism around the plant had faded. The 25-man team required to run the plant was expensive, while concerns over possible chloride stress corrosion emerged after the discovery of wet insulation during a routine inspection. Both costs and environmental impacts conspired to close the plant in September 1972.
This precipitated a major clean up that saw 12,000 tonnes of contaminated rock removed and shipped back to the USA through nuclear-free New Zealand. The clean up pre-dated Antarctica’s modern environmental protection regime by two decades, and required the development of new standards for soil contamination levels.
This elaborate process ensured that the US did not violate the Antarctic Treaty by disposing of nuclear waste on the continent. It also foreshadowed a shift in environmental attitudes away from development and use, towards protection; the removal of so much as one pebble from the Antarctic without requisite permits is now prohibited.
Today, all that physically remains at the site of the PM-3A reactor is a missing hillside and a plaque. Nuclear power is no longer viewed with the optimism of the 1960s, thanks to disasters such as Chernobyl and Fukushima.
The site where Nukey Poo once stood has been designated as a Historic Site and Monument under the Antarctic Treaty System, putting it in the same category as the huts of early explorers such as Mawson and Shackleton.
However, a site with a past of nuclear contamination does not sit well within modern narratives of Antarctica as a place to protect, so this episode in the continent’s history is not often told.
When Admiral Dufek wrote in 1960 “Antarctica will be a fantastic land in the future” he had a very different vision in mind to the Antarctica we see today. Today, the far south is not a place to be improved upon with human innovation, so much as a place to be protected from our influence – including climate change.
The episode of Nukey Poo reveals the modern association between science and the Antarctic environment has not always been so. In demonstrating how Antarctica went from being seen as territory to conquer to a fragile environment, we are reminded that its protection cannot be taken for granted
Comets and meteors have fascinated the human race since they were first spotted in the night sky. But without science and space exploration to aid understanding of what these chunks of rock and ice are, ancient cultures often turned to myth and legend to explain them.
The Greeks and Romans believed that the appearance of comets, meteors and meteor showers were portentous. They were signs that something good or bad had happened or was about to happen. The arrival of a comet could herald the birth of a great figure, and some people have even argued that the star in the sky which the Persian Magi followed to Bethlehem to see the newborn Jesus was actually a comet.
In the spring of 44BC, a comet that appeared was interpreted as a sign of the deification of Julius Caesar, following his murder. Caesar’s adopted son Octavian (soon to be the Emperor Augustus) made much of the comet, which burned in the sky during the funerary games held for Caesar. This portentous event was frequently celebrated in the ancient sources. In his epic poem, the Aeneid, Virgil describes how “a star appeared in the daytime, and Augustus persuaded people to believe it was Caesar”.
Augustus celebrated the comet and the deification of his father on coins (it did help to be the son of a god when trying to rule the Roman Empire), and many examples survive today.
The Roman historian Cassius Dio referred to “comet stars” occurring in August 30BC. These are mentioned as among the portents witnessed after the death of the Egyptian queen Cleopatra. Experts are not entirely sure what it means when Dio uses the plural term “comet stars”, but some have connected this recorded event to the annual Perseid meteor shower.
Though it retains an ancient Greek name, we now know that the arrival of the Perseid meteor shower every August is actually the Earth’s orbit passing through debris from the Swift-Tuttle comet.
The meteor shower is named for the Perseidai (Περσείδαι), who were the sons of the ancient Greek hero Perseus. Perseus was a legendary figure with a fine family pedigree – he was the mythical son of Zeus and Argive princess Danaë (she of the golden rain). Perseus earned himself a constellation after a number of epic adventures across the Mediterranean and Near East that included the frequently illustrated murder of the Gorgon sister, Medusa.
Another of Perseus’s celebrated acts was the rescue of the princess Andromeda. Abandoned by her parents to placate a sea monster, the princess was found by Perseus on a rock by the ocean. He married her and they went on to have seven sons and two daughters. Sky watchers believed that the constellation Perseus, located just beside Andromeda in the night sky, was the origin of the shooting stars they could see every summer, and so the name Perseid stuck.
Tears and other traditions
In Christian tradition the Perseid meteor shower has long been connected to the martyrdom of St Lawrence. Laurentius was a deacon in the early church at Rome, martyred in the year 258AD, during the persecutions of the Emperor Valerian. The martyrdom supposedly took place on August 10, when the meteor shower was at its height, and so the shooting stars are equated to the saint’s tears.
Detailed records of astronomical events and sky watching can be found in historical texts from the Far East too. Ancient and medieval records from China, Korea and Japan have all been found to contain detailed accounts of meteor showers. Sometimes these different sources can be correlated, which has allowed astronomers to track, for example, the impact of Halley’s comet on ancient societies both east and west. These sources have also been used to find the first recorded observation of the Perseid meteor shower as a specific event, in Han Chinese records of 36AD.
Though the myths and legends may make one think that ancient civilisations had little scientific understanding of what meteors, comets and asteroids could be, this couldn’t be farther from the truth. The early astronomers of the Near East, those who created the Babylonian and Egyptian calendars, and astronomical data were – by far – the most advanced in antiquity. And a recent study of ancient cuneiform texts has proven that the Babylonian ability to track comets, planetary movements and sky events as far back as the first millennium BC involved a much more complex geometry than had been previously believed.