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Anatomy of a Mummy
A close study of the mystery skeleton's bones indicates he was male and in his early twenties
by Joyce M. Filer

Cairo, January 2000. I am waiting in a private research room at the Egyptian Museum to examine the skeletal remains found in Tomb 55 of the Valley of the Kings. The identity of this mummy has been debated every since the tomb was discovered in January 1907. The excavator, Theodore M. Davis, invited two doctors visiting the newly opened tomb to examine the mummy, reduced to a skeleton through poor preservation and mishandling upon discovery. One of the physicians was a Dr. Pollock and the other, whose name appears unknown, is described as "a prominent American obstetrician." Davis was obviously pleased to be informed by them that the mummy was "without a doubt" that of an elderly female, for he was convinced he had found the tomb of Queen Tiye, the wife of Amenhotep III (r. 1388-1348) and mother of Akhenaten (r. 1350-1333). The machinery for controversy was set in motion when the remains were sent to the anatomist Grafton Elliot Smith for further examinations. Smith identified the individual as a male who was at least in his mid-twenties when he died. Despite these conflicting anatomical views, Davis published the tomb and remains as Queen Tiye's in 1910, while Smith published the remains as male in 1912.

Over the years, the body has been re-examined several times, the majority of researchers agreeing that the body is of a male. The age at death, however, has continued to be a source of controversy as it has considerable bearing on the proper identity. To tie in with historical sources, scholars who favor identifying the remains as those of Akhenaten require the body to be that of a man at least 35 years of age at death. Those accepting the body to be that of a younger man support its identification look for ties to artistic representations that how the pharaoh with a bizarre physique (spindly limbs, large pelvis, and elongated, angular face), reasoning that the skeleton may preserve evidence of a medical disorder.

As an Egyptologist and physical anthropologist, I hope my examination of the reamins will solve some of the mysteries surrounding this body. Key points of the examination will be confirming the sex of the individual, determining the age at death, and looking for evidence of possible pathological conditions.

Ninety-three years later, almost to the day it was discovered, I watch as the protective textile covering the body is rolled back under the supervision of Nasry Iskander, the curator in charge of mummies at the Egyptian Museum. My first task is to establish how much of this famous body actually exists, for some researchers have suggested that the skeleton is incomplete and in poor condition. It is immediately obvious that this is not the case. Apart from a few missing teeth, and hand and foot bones boxed separately, the skeleton is almost complete and is in good condition except for some damage that occurred after death to some of the vertebrae and the tip of the left pubic bone. The bones are dark-colored in places, a feature often seen in Egyptian mummies following the decay or removal of linen wrappings. Unguents used in mummification and complex environmental interactions within the burial place can produce such discolorations. Flakes of opaque substance adhering to some of the bones are likely remnants of the paraffin wax in which Arthur Weigall, Chief Inspector of Antiquities at Luxor when the tomb was found, soaked the body before sending it to Smith.

My next task is to check whether or not the skull and the bones of the skeleton belong to one another. The possibility that parts of this skeleton might have been mixed with those of another (or others) has been raised by at least one researcher, so I feel it is vital to establish the integrity of the body before proceeding any further. Happily, the situation looks good. The upper and lower leg bones articulate together smoothly, and these in turn fit correctly with the two pelvic (hip) bones. All the elements of the spine fit together well and also articulate perfectly between the two hip bones. Moving to the top of the spine, I am keen to check if it fits with the base of the skull, as this will determine if the skull and skeleton belong to the same person. It does. So, there we have it -- one individual. But what about those crucial questions of sex and age?

To establish the sex of any skeleton, an examination of the pelvis is critical. As I articulate the two hip bones with the sacrum, they form a basin or girdle that is small and heart-shaped, a very male attribute. The angle of the two hip bones, where they meet at the front of the body, is steep: another male characteristic. The greater sciatic notch, a curved hollow area on the lower edge of each hip bone, is neither overtly male nor female in shape, but it is not the most important indicator of sex, so we cannot place too much weight on it. The sacrum is typically male in shape. The skull presents some very strongly male features: large mastoid processes (the bone you can feel just behind your ear) and well-defined brow ridges. The mandible, or lower jaw, is strong and wide and rather square-shaped, all features associated with males. Overall, the skeleton is not overly reobust, but neither is it as delicate or feminine as some researchers have claimed. I do find an aperture in both upper arm bones just above the elbow. Such apertures are found more often with gracile individuals, hence females, and are often seen in ancient Egyptian remains. But in light of the other, stronger indicators of sex, they cannot really sway an assessment away from male. Looking on the backs of the upper leg bones, I find a pronounced ridge (the linea aspera), again supporting a determination as male. In putting the evidence together from the hip bones, the skull and mandible, and other features, I am in no doubt that the skeleton before me is male.

In considering this man's age at death, I need to look at his teeth and assess the maturity of his bones. Apart from one of the four third molars (wisdom teeth) not being fully erupted, he had a full set of adult teeth. The front ones of the lower jaw are missing, but I can see clearly from the empty sockets that they were lost after death. The partially erupted third molar tells me this is a younger adult -- no older than the early twenties -- although wisdom teeth can erupt at any time from about the age of 18 onward. The teeth show no signs of periodontal disease or tooth decay. Importantly, the molars show only the slightest wear on the chewing surfaces, which again strongly suggests a young adult.

Turning to the bones, I can see that some skeletal elements are immature. As bones reach maturity, various unattached elements (called epiphyses) fuse onto the main section, preventing further growth. Because the bones in the human skeleton fuse in a particular order and within a known time frame, this information can be used to assess an individual's age at death. As I examine the ends of the arm and leg bones of the skeleton, the fusion lines are clearly visible, indicating that this man was not quite a fully mature adult, between 18 and 21 years when he died. Following his examination, Smith stated that the limb bones were "fully ossified and consolidated", but this is not borne out by what I see. One section of the outer edge of the hip bone (the crest of the ilium) is not fused, pointing to an age of no more than 25 years for a male. Generally the last element of the skeleton to fuse is the end of the collar bone that articulates with the breastbone. Here there is no fusion at all, setting an upper age limit of about 25 years. Interestingly, but not often noted, research conducted in the early twentieth century showed that, skeletally speaking, modern Egyptians tend to mature earlier than their European counterparts. If this was the case in ancient Egypt, the noted lack of fusion in some skeletal elements of the body provides further corroboration of a young age.

Although the fading and obliteration of the sutures holding the bones of the skull together is an unreliable indicator of age by itself, I think it is worth noting that this skull presents no signs of this; it would be expected if the individual were significantly older. Similarly, I see no evidence of osteoarthritis, the arthritis caused by everyday wear and tear, and this, too, tends to suggest a younger person.

Some statues and stelae of Akhenaten show him with an overly long face and head and an exceptionally feminine physique, prompting speculation that he suffered from a pronounced medical disorder. When Smith studied the body, he considered the varying degrees of density in the skull bones as indicating hydrocephalus, an abnormal enlargement of the skull, but others examining the skull later found no such signs. Was Smith influenced by the representations of the king that he'd seen in the Egyptian Museum? Certainly, he felt confident in proclaiming the Tomb 55 body as that of Akhenaten in his 1912 report. With that in mind, I examine the skeleton for any traces of abnormality. I can see that the skull is large, but well within normal limits and is, in fact, of a shape totally contrasting with that of the hydrocephalic. The pelvic basic or girdle is small and its lack of width rules against its matching the generous dimensions exhibited in some of Akhenaten's statues.

It is also worth noting that there are some depictions of him with normal stature. It may well be, as has been suggested, that he chose to have himself represented with features of both sexes as an expression of his religious beliefs in which he viewed himself as the mother and father of his people. If this is the case, the presence or absence of cranial abnormalities or female skeletal characteristics may not be significant in establishing the individual's identity.

During my examination of the bones, I have the opportunity to compare the X-ray iamges of Tutankhamun's skull taken by anatomist R.G. Harrison of the University of Liverpool in 1966 with those of the Tomb 55 skull taken by James E. Harris, a University of Michigan orthodontics professor, in the 1970s. By overlaying one X-ray image upon the other on a lightbox, it is possible to examine and compare the size and shape of both skulls. Several researchers have commented upon the remarkable likeness in size and shape between Tutankhamun's skull and that of the Tomb 55 mummy and anatomical similarity, that these two individuals must have been closely related. Perhaps DNA analysis will one day help us clarify the situation.

A question commonly asked about the ancient dead is how did he or she die, Harrison says that he found evidence of periostitis (bone inflammation most often caused by trauma or infection) on X-ray images he made of several of the bones. I see no signs of traumatic injury; thus it is possible that this young man had suffered some form of infection during life. Without taking new X-ray images, it is difficult to comment further on Harrison's findings. As the evidence stands, it is not possible to state a cause of death.

An anatomical examination cannot identify the individual, but it can provide information useful in evaluating the theories various scholars have proposed. The human remains from Tomb 55, as presented to me, are those of a young man no older than his early twenties at death and probably a few years younger. If those wanting to identify the reamins with Akhenaten demand an age at death of more than mid-twenties, then this is not the man for them. As an obviously younger individual, some people might like to identify the remains as belonging to the mysterious Smenkhkare. Might they, in fact, belong to neither of them? Whoever he was, the similarity between the Tomb 55 skull and that of Tutankhamun, Akhenaten's son, certainly suggests he was a member of the royal family.

Joyce M. Filer is a curator in the department of Egyptian antiquities at the British Museum, London.

Archaeology March/April 2002, pgs. 26-29.