Postdoc bringing faces of Egypt from the past

For Andrew Wade, it was a face-to-face meeting like no other.

A postdoctoral fellow in Western’s Anthropology department, he has been working with a forensic artist from John Abbott College reconstructing the identities of three Egyptian mummies, laid to rest roughly 2,000 years ago.

Examined using state-of-the-art medical imaging technology, the skeletal data, computerized tomography (CT) scans and radiocarbon analyses of the mummies have helped reveal three ancient faces – a young man and a young woman, as well as a white-haired matron – as they may have looked prior to their deaths.

“(Even) with the skeletal material and CT scans, I didn’t have any idea what they’d look like,” Wade said, crediting the sketches of forensic artist Victoria Lywood for the end result. “It was amazing to see what they would look like as we got snapshots as the process went along.

“To meet these mummies face-to-face was just amazing.”

The reconstructions were a collaborative effort between the Redpath Museum’s World Cultures Collection at McGill University, Western’s IMPACT Radiological Mummy Database Project, the Engineering Department of John Abbott College and forensic artist Lywood. The results were unveiled last week at Redpath.

“These three (mummies) have been fascinating studies, contributing to our understanding of mummification,” Wade said. He noted the scans of these mummies and others help anthropologists understand how the tradition changed over time.

“The Theban male has packing in a large cavity in his teeth, and that’s unique so far in literature. It hints at ancient dental intervention practices,” he added.

The three mummies were scanned at the Montreal Neurological Institute and Hospital in 2011 with some of the most sophisticated technology available, producing high-resolution 3D images. Aside from the fascinating case studies and a visceral connection to the past, Wade thinks it’s important to value and understand the scientific process behind it all.

“It’s extremely important to get the public involved in something relatable and have them see the mummies, and better understand how we come about doing this, the science about it and anthropological assessments and 3D printing,” he said.

“The stuff we do with mummies pushes the boundaries with technology. The public can get a lot out of it. It’s important to get the public involved and getting them to understand what we do is a large collaborative effort.”

Radiocarbon dating following the CT scans revealed the female Theban mummy is from the Late Roman Period (230-380 CE) and the Theban male mummy from the Ptolemaic Period (332-30 BCE). The hairstyle visible in scans of the third mummy indicates it is from the mid-Roman Period (96-161 CE).

Skeletal data from CT scans, along with revised historical context from radiocarbon analyses, helped the team create the facial reconstructions, while anthropological analyses of the scans has provided researchers with information relating to the demographics, social statuses and medical conditions during the lives of the three mummies, further informing opinions on how ancient Egyptians lived and died.

The reconstruction will be part of a new display in the World Cultures gallery at Redpath starting next month. The collection also features cat, crocodile and bird mummies.