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The Mummified Head Puzzle

In 1915, an Egyptian tomb was found a head, torn from the body. To find out the owner, I had to connect the FBI and a specialist who studied the remains of the Romanov family.

A group of doctors from a medical center in Boston retrieves a tooth from a mummified head. Here and further photos of the Museum of Fine Arts

In 1915, a group of American archaeologists discovered a tomb in Egypt, the entrance to which was partially destroyed. Inside the specialists saw something strange – on the lid of one of the sarcophagi lay a severed mummified head. It seemed to belong to the ancient Egyptian Nomarch, but no one could give an exact answer.

To answer the question, who still owns the head, specialists took more than 100 years. And also the help of the FBI and one of the most famous experts in the field of recognition of ancient bodies by DNA. The history of the scientific investigation was told by The New York Times.

Disturbed peace

The room known in the archaeological community as “Tomb 10A” is the resting place of the Egyptian nomarch Dzsehutinaht and his wife. At some point in their 4000-year “sleep”, intruders made their way to the tomb. They stole gold and jewelry from the bodies, and then, it is believed, tore off the head of one of the bodies. The unidentified body was thrown into the corner and tried to set fire to the room to cover up the tracks.

In 1915, the surviving sarcophagi and wooden figures were discovered by an American expedition sponsored by the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, Massachusetts. Six years later, the found was sent to the United States. Most of the collection was kept under lock and key until 2009, when the museum first showed it at the exhibition.

Members of the expedition at the entrance to “Tomb 10A”, 1915

Although the body remained in Egypt, the severed head attracted much attention from the public. Visitors were surprised that after so many years the specialists still could not find out whose remains they were. “The head was found standing on the sarcophagus of the nomarch, but we are not sure whether it is his head or his wife,” said the physician and curator of the Boston museum Rita Fried.

The representatives of the institution came to the conclusion that only a DNA test can give an exact answer to whom the head belongs. The problem was that experts had never been able to extract DNA from a mummy over 4000 years old. The main reason is the Egyptian climate, which rapidly destroys DNA. To solve the puzzle, the museum management turned to the FBI.

History of intervention

The FBI never conducted an examination on such an ancient specimen, but a successful DNA test could help in further study of the ancient Egyptian remains. “Honestly, I did not believe that we would succeed, because at that time it was believed that it was impossible to extract DNA from Egyptian remains,” said Odile Loreille, a judicial forensic expert at the FBI.

According to the researchers, Nomarch Jehutinaht and his wife lived around 2000 BC, during the Middle Kingdom in Ancient Egypt. The spouses ruled Upper Egypt on a narrow strip along the Nile River. Although the walls in the tomb were bare, coffins preserved hieroglyphs and drawings that tell of the afterlife.

The lid of the sarcophagus, painted with hieroglyphs, in “Tomb 10A”

The blame for the desecration of the tomb lies with the American archaeologist George Reisner and his colleague Hanford Storey. During the study of the territory of central Egypt, they stumbled upon a large grave shaft. With the help of dynamite, the looters penetrated and stole the jewels.

In 2005, the staff of the Boston Museum using computer tomography found that the unknown head lacks cheeks and a portion of the jaw directly responsible for chewing. There was a question – why did the remains have such deviations? Neurosurgeon Paul Chapman suggested that this may be part of an ancient ritual known as the “Open-mouth ceremony”. He was held before mummification of the body, so that the deceased, as the Egyptians believed, could eat, drink and breathe in the afterlife.

Although this version had theoretical ground, some doctors and Egyptologists began to doubt. They did not believe that representatives of ancient civilization could conduct such a complicated procedure with the tools of those years. Then the FBI team proved the version on two experimental bodies. With the help of a chisel and a hammer, the maxillofacial surgeon punched a chisel between his lips and gums for wisdom teeth and removed the same jawbones that were missing from the unknown head.

Identification of mummified remains

Doctors and experts of the Boston museum agreed that DNA should be extracted from the molars of the mummy. Teeth, as sometimes scientists say, are temporary capsules that can tell about the genetics of the owner. With their help, experts learned a lot about the life of the Denisov man (a hypothetical subspecies of extinct people who lived in the Altai Territory) and collected an anamnesis for long-dead people.

“Since the head was torn off, we had an advantage – there was a hole in the neck”, – describes the procedure for identifying the mummy Paul Chapman. Experts dumped the inside of the remains of the wire camera and output the image to the monitor. The first tooth, which they tried to snatch, did not succumb, but the second one came off almost instantly. He was carefully removed through the neck and sent for analysis. “He looked absolutely free from the cavity and a perfectly preserved tooth,” Dr. Fried explained.

For the next few years, experts have been trying to extract DNA from the tooth, until in 2016 he finally got into the laboratory with the medical expert of the FBI, Odile Loreil. She got a job at the department after 20 years of researching ancient DNA. Once the woman extracted genetic materials from the remains of a cave bear with an age of 130 thousand years and identified the corpses of unknown soldiers of the times of the Korean War. Loreil also found out the name of a two-year-old boy whose body was found on the site of the Titanic’s death, and in 2009 proved that the remains of the bodies found in the Urals belong to two children of the Romanov royal family – Alexei and one of his sisters.

In the laboratory of the FBI, Loreil drilled the root of the tooth of the mummified head and collected small particles of powder. She then split the tooth into dust, which she placed in the DNA library for future research. The specialist entered the tooth data into the computer and studied the structure and details of the chromosomes in the sample. When the program processed the request, a notice appeared on the screen – the tooth sample belongs to the man.

Loreyl proved that the mummified head really belonged to the nomarch Jehutinahtu, and in parallel with this helped scientists find a new kind of ancient Egyptian DNA. In the archaeological and scientific community such finds are considered particularly valuable. Moreover, the discovery allowed a long dispute in the archaeological association about how close representatives of Ancient Egypt are connected with modern North Americans. The FBI investigation determined that the maternal ancestor of Jehutynaht was a Eurasian.

Future work with DNA from ancient Egypt can help scientists learn more about the past of civilization. However, obtaining new samples to create a complete genetic sequence will be quite problematic – since 1983, the Egyptian authorities have banned foreign researchers from exporting ancient artifacts or human remains from the country. Many will continue to rely on ancient exhibits such as the head of Jehutinacht.

But for Egyptologists and employees of the Boston museum the main reward is that now they finally know the owner of the mummified head. To answer this question it took a bit more than 100 years. “Now we know that this is the nomarch by himself. We already showed our head in the museum, but now we can change the sign, “jokes the doctor and curator of the Museum of Fine Arts Rita Fried.

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