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Instructions for a 3,500-year-old pregnancy test.

Translated Papyrus Provides New insights Into Medical Knowledge of Ancient Egypt

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The University of Copenhagen in Denmark has announced a very important discovery. During an international project to decipher ancient Egyptian texts, one expert has been able to translate a papyrus that has long been a mystery. The expert found that the ancient Egyptians had a greater understanding of biology than previously believed and made a significant contribution to the development of science. The text also demonstrates the importance of astrology in Egyptian civilization.

Egyptian Texts

There have been a great many Egyptian medical texts found on subjects as diverse as ingrown eyelashes, the gender of fetuses to hangover cures. Now new technologies have helped researchers to better understand these often-fragmentary papyrus texts. These documents give recipes for medical treatments made out of rather strange and quite frankly disgusting ingredients such as lizard dung or bull’s blood. Many of the papyri read like the ingredients of witches’ cauldrons and indeed there was a strong link between medicine and magic in antiquity. Despite this, ancient Egyptian medical texts enjoyed great prestige in antiquity, especially among the Greeks.

One of the Ph.D students, Sofie Schiødt in front of a 3,500-year-old medical papyrus. (Photo: Mikkel Andreas Beck, via ScienceNordic)

The University of Copenhagen has a large collection of unpublished papyri. These documents contain a host of information on Ancient Egypt, but they are very difficult to decipher. At present four Ph.D. students are working on deciphering the texts, which is a very painstaking process. It is reported that it can take up to one year to read one of the texts because of their fragmentary condition.

Contents of the Papyrus

Ph.D. student Amber Jacob from the University of New York was working on some texts. The papyri were mainly related to medicine. According to Phys.Org, the texts originally belonged to the “Tebtunis temple library, which existed long before the famous Library of Alexandria, up until 200 BCE.”

Fragment from the Tebtunis temple library in the Papyrus Carlsberg Collection. ( University of Copenhagen )

Fragment from the Tebtunis temple library in the Papyrus Carlsberg Collection. ( University of Copenhagen )

Ancient knowledge has been revealed

The Ph.D. student, after many hours of work, began to slowly reveal the contents of the texts and was stunned by what she found.

In one of the documents from the ancient library, she came across a reference to an organ in the body that she was able to establish referred to a kidney. Previously it had been believed that the Egyptian knowledge of the human body was limited and that they did not have any knowledge of the human kidney. However, Jacob’s translation has proved that this was not the case and it is reported by that  “It’s the oldest known medical text to discuss the kidneys.”

The Astrology of Egyptians

The translated text is also demonstrating to experts the significance the ancient Egyptians attached to astrology. Today astrology is not something taken as a serious scientific subject by many but it was highly valued because of its supposed ability to foresee the future, in what were often turbulent times.  According to Science Nordic it was an important “tool for predicting the future and it was considered a very central science”. The way that the planets were aligned often determined if a Pharaoh went to war and on what day.

The Dendera Zodiac is an Egyptian astrological calendar, as displayed at the Louvre. ( Public Domain )

The Dendera Zodiac is an Egyptian astrological calendar, as displayed at the Louvre. ( Public Domain )

Insights into Egyptian thought and science

This papyrus and others in the University of Copenhagen’s library are changing the way that we view the history of science. Traditionally, the view was that the Romans and the Greeks were decisive in the growth of scientific thinking. However, the papyri show that the ancient Egyptians also played a very important role in the history of science. There are Egyptian documents discussing scientific observations thousands of years before the Romans and the Greeks.

The deciphering of the text is something of a breakthrough. It is showing us that the Egyptians had a greater understanding of the human body than widely believed and made a significant contribution to science. The papyrus also shows us that astrology was central to life in the civilization centered on the Ancient Nile. This translation is also allowing us to have a better understanding of the ancient Egyptians and there are probably more exciting discoveries to be made in the vast trove of unpublished texts in the University of Copenhagen.

Top image: Instructions for a 3,500-year-old pregnancy test. Source: Carlsberg Papyrus Collection / University of Copenhagen

By Ed Whelan

Ed Whelan's picture


My name is Edward Whelan and I graduated with a PhD in history in 2008. Between 2010-2012 I worked in the Limerick City Archives. I have written a book and several peer reviewed journal articles. At present I am a... Read More

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