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The embellished mummy case containing the remains of the priest Iret-hor-iru

CT Scans of Mummy of an Ancient Priest Reveal He Was Stricken with Modern Diseases

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The mummy of an ancient Egyptian man from 2,200 years ago was recently scanned by researchers. The results proved that the man, who lived during the reign of the Ptolemies, had weak bones and tooth decay – two issues that are generally associated with a more modern way of life.

The man was believed to have been a priest, and his mummy is on display at Israel's national museum. While examining the remains, the researchers used a CT scan to reveal that he suffered from some illnesses during his lifetime. The mummy, nicknamed ''Alex'', was wrapped in strands of linen with a gold mask placed over his skull’s face and was encased in a gold and a black coffin. When he died he was between 30 to 40 years old.

A CT (computerized tomography) scan of a 2,200-year-old Egyptian mummy on display in the Israel Museum in Jerusalem.

A CT (computerized tomography) scan of a 2,200-year-old Egyptian mummy on display in the Israel Museum in Jerusalem. Associated Press Photo

According to DailyMail, the researchers saw evidence of severe tooth decay and guessed that the man suffered from excruciating toothaches. During his lifetime, he also evidently avoided manual labor in the sun in favor of focusing on his spiritual well-being. He evidently ate snacks that were full of carbohydrates as well. Thus, it is not too surprising that “Alex” had cavities in his teeth. This was quite common in some social classes in ancient Egypt due to a diet which contained lots of sweets. The man’s diet and lifestyle also made him more susceptible to osteoporosis, which the scans also show.

This research is a continuation of other international studies that have suggested that people in ancient Egyptian times also suffered from some modern-day diseases. As Galit Bennett, who curated the mummy exhibit, said: “Osteoporosis is a disease that is characteristic of the 20th century, when people don't work so hard. We are glued to screens. We were very surprised that there were people who didn't do physical work and that it affected their bodies like this man here.”

According to the researchers, the man was originally 167 cm (5.6 ft.) tall, but after his mummification, his body shrank to 154 cm (5.1 ft.) The team believes that this decrease in size was caused by the embalming process and the dry climate of Jerusalem. However, the same reasons aided in the excellent preservation of the mummy's bones, teeth, and even remnants of blood vessels.

It is believed that the mummy comes from Akhmim, about 480 km (300 miles) south of present-day Cairo. The inscription on his coffin says that he was a priest. The mummy and coffin were a gift to the Jesuit Pontifical Biblical Institute in Jerusalem in the late 1920s by Jesuits in Alexandria, Egypt. The Jesuits loaned it to the Israel Museum.

Another interesting fact about this mummy is that it is the only relic in Israel which has the double “Protective Eye of Horus” - a very meaningful symbol related to Ancient Egypt.

Horus was a key deity in ancient Egypt as a god of the sky and war, and this being was depicted as a man with a falcon head or as a falcon.

The Egyptian Mummy on display in the Israel Museum.

The Egyptian Mummy on display in the Israel Museum. Photo Credit: Israel Museum

This is not the first time when CT scans have helped to find out more about the health of a person who was mummified millennia ago. As Mark Miller from Ancient Origins reported in September 25, 2015 “Over the years, scientists have found evidence of cancers, heart disease, starvation, ulcers, smallpox, tuberculosis and other infections in ancient remains from all over the world.” Researchers using CT scans have also detected a diseased kidney in an ancient Egyptian mummy. It appeared that a mummy of a man named Irtieru “had a kidney disease called renal tuberculosis that calcified (hardened) the organ.”

Irtieru died in the Third Intermediate Period and his mummy is housed within the Egyptian collection of the Museu Nacional de Arqueologia in Lisbon, and as Mr. Miller wrote “Computer tomography scans of this mummy showed a small dense bean-shaped structure at the left lumbar region. Its anatomical location, morphologic and structural analysis support a diagnosis of end-stage renal tuberculosis. If this diagnosis is correct, this will be the oldest example of kidney tuberculosis, and the first one recorded in an intentionally mummified ancient Egyptian.”

As one can see, health issues related to lifestyle are nothing new. What is interesting for many researchers is to find out just which diseases have passed through the sands of time, connecting modern people to their ancient ancestors. It is also of interest to see how and why these health problems have persisted. Furthermore, research into this area can show which illnesses were found in different social classes and how these may relate to their diet, activities, and social hierarchy.

Top image: The embellished mummy case containing the remains of the priest Iret-hor-iru | Photo credit: Oren Ben Hakoon

By Natalia Klimzcak



Natalia Klimczak is an historian, journalist and writer and is currently a Ph.D. Candidate at the Faculty of Languages, University of Gdansk. Natalia does research in Narratology, Historiography, History of Galicia (Spain) and Ancient History of Egypt, Rome and Celts. She... Read More

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