Dust to dust – the scientific analysis of debris samples removed from mummified remains

At the UK Archaeological Science Conference 2013, the Bio Bank team were fortunate to listen to many interesting presentations on all aspects of archaeological science. Not often do the topics presented strike such a chord as that presented by University of Bradford PhD student Rhea Brettell. From the moment Rhea took the stage, ideas started formulating in our minds as to how her investigative techniques could potentially be useful to study some of the Bio Bank samples. Rhea studies samples of debris from the material surrounding buried bodies, many of which come from within lead coffins on British archaeological sites. Much of her work is carried out on material which is removed in large quantities as ‘spoil’ – removed from archaeological contexts in order to get to the layers beneath, and much of which is ultimately destined for disposal. 

Rhea uses GC-MS techniques to trace residues of resinous materials often used in mortuary rituals and to interpret their presence as evidence of bodily preservation or treatment. The techniques require small samples, yet the amount of information which can be gathered is immense.

The Bio Bank holds many samples classified as ‘debris’. Surprisingly, not all of these samples come from poorly preserved or damaged bundles. Debris samples can be tiny flecks of material found loose inside packing boxes which may otherwise be discarded as ‘dust’. Some damaged mummies yield more substantial debris samples which, even to the naked eye, can be seen to contain a mixture of types of material, none of which is identifiable with any certainty due to the dust-like appearance. Obtaining samples of this kind is usually possible even in the case of mummies which are so well-preserved and complete that sampling of the bundle itself proves impossible. From a conservation standpoint, being able to investigate these samples plays a vital role as no invasive methods are employed on the artefacts themselves, yet useful information can be found.

Yesterday, we were lucky to have Rhea visit the Bio Bank to examine our samples and to subsample those she felt may be suitable candidates for her methods. In total, 21 samples were transported back to Bradford for analysis and we hope to get some results soon. We hope that analysis of the mummy dust will help to show the presence of resinous compounds which we believe would have been applied to the body after death or at some point during the mummification process. Identifying such compounds will, in turn, help to identify geographical sources and trade routes in use in ancient times and allow comparisons to be made with materials used in the preservation of the human and animal dead. We look forward to presenting the results of this analysis as soon as possible and highlighting the value of samples which may otherwise seem little more than dust particles. 

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