Archaeology

Ancient Egyptian Mummy Found With Brain, No Heart

An ancient Egyptian mummy found with an intact brain, but no heart, has a plaque on her abdomen that may have been intended to ritually heal her.

An ancient Egyptian mummy found with an intact brain, but no heart, has a plaque on her abdomen that may have been intended to ritually heal her, say a team of researchers who examined the female body with CT scans.

The woman probably lived around 1,700 years ago, at a time when Egypt was under Roman rule and Christianity was spreading, according to radiocarbon dating. Her name is unknown and she died between age 30 and 50. Like many Egyptians, she had terrible dental problems and had lost many of her teeth.

The use of mummification was in decline as Roman culture and Christianity took hold in the country. But this woman and her family, apparently strong in their traditional Egyptian beliefs, insisted on having the procedure done. [See Images of the Ancient Egyptian Mummy & Weird Plaque]

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To remove her organs, the scans show, the embalmers created a hole through her perineum and removed her intestines, stomach, liver and even her heart. Her brain, however, was left intact. Spices and lichen were spread over her head and abdomen, and she was wrapped and presumably put in a coffin; her final resting place was likely near Luxor, 19th century records say.

Before the embalmers were finished they filled the hole in the perineum with linen and resin. They also put two thin plaques similar to cartonnage (a plastered material) on her skin above her sternum and abdomen, something that may have been intended to ritually heal the damage the embalmers had done and act as a replacement, of sorts, for her removed heart.

"The power of current medical imaging technologies to provide evidence of change in ancient Egyptian mortuary ritual cannot be understated," writes the research team in an article to be published in the "Yearbook of Mummy Studies." While the technology is powerful it does have some limits. The presence of spices and lichen on the head were first found in the 19th century when the head was unwrapped. The CT scans revealed that they are likely also located on the mummy's abdomen, a determination aided by this unwrapping.

The mummy and its coffin - now at the Redpath Museum at McGill University in Montreal - were purchased at Luxor in the 19th century. Scientists aren't sure if the coffin she is in now was originally meant for her. Antiquity dealers in the 19th century would sometimes place a mummy into a coffin from another tomb to earn more money. Coffins were also sometimes reused in antiquity.

What happened to the heart?

The heart played a central role in ancient Egyptian religion, being weighed against the feather of ma'at (an Egyptian concept that included truth and justice) to see if one was worthy of entering the afterlife. For this reason, Egyptologists had long assumed the Egyptians didn't remove that organ, something that recent research into several mummies, including this one, contradicts. [See Images of the Egyptian Mummification Process]

With evidence showing the heart was removed on at least some occasions Egyptologists are left with a question, what did the ancient Egyptians do with it?

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"We don't really know what's happening to the hearts that are removed," said Andrew Wade, a professor at McMaster University in Hamilton, Canada, in an interview with Live Science. During some time periods, the hearts may have been put in canopic jars, a type of jar used to hold internal organs, though tissue analysis is needed to confirm this idea, Wade said.

Healing the mummy?

Even more mysterious is a question that Wade's team is currently grappling with: Why did this woman receive two plaques in areas that were never sliced open?

The plaque on the sternum may have acted as a replacement, of sorts, for the removed heart, they said. However, the one on the abdomen is more ambiguous. The team knows that mummies who were dissected through the abdomen received a plaque like this, however, scans reveal this woman's abdomen was never touched.

The embalmers may have thought the plaque would help by ritually healing the hole they had created in the woman's perineum, the researchers speculate. By doing so they may have been trying to give her "a more favorable afterlife, healed and protected as she was by the embalmer's additional efforts," the researchers write in their paper.

In addition to the current study, another paper presenting informationabout the mummy was published in 2012 in the journal RSNA RadioGraphics, and a reconstruction of the mummy's face by forensic artist Victoria Lywood was released last year.

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Image Gallery: Inca Child Mummies Image Gallery: The Faces of Egyptian Mummies Revealed Mummy Melodrama: Top 9 Secrets About Otzi the Iceman This story originally appeared on LiveScience.com.

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This 1,700-year-old mummy has a brain, no heart and plaques over her sternum and abdomen, say researchers. Here, the mummy is being unboxed on the first day of a scanning session at the Montreal Neurological Institute.

A young, short man with a slight resemblance to Michael Jackson, a woman with an elaborate hairstyle and an older woman who could slip, unnoticed, into today's society -- all died some 2,000 years ago but now facial reconstructions of the ancient Egyptians have brought them back to life.

The reconstructions were unveiled today at McGill University's Redpath Museum.

"People are amazed by mummies, but never more so, I've found, when they can see the face," said anthropologist Andrew Wade of Western University.

The high tech process, involving CT scanning and multiple scientific disciplines, recreates what the three individuals looked like as they were laid to rest nearly 2,000 years ago.

Here, a mummy is set to go into a CT scanner.

Mummies of a young male, a young female and an older woman were virtually unwrapped using CT scanning. Models of their bone structure were then created.

Barbara Lawson, a curator at the Redpath Museum who also worked on the project, added that all three mummies were scanned at the Montreal Neurological Institute and Hospital as part of Western University's IMPACT Radiological Mummy Database Project.

Forensic artist Victoria Lywood undertook the actual reconstruction work, which was based on the 3-D high-resolution images along with ultrasonic images and anthropological research.

A step in the process involved sketching what the individuals would have looked like.

Some have detected a facial resemblance, at least from the front profile, with the late pop star Michael Jackson. Jackson was, in fact, very interested in Egyptian history, which might have influenced some of his personal style.

The Theban male died between the ages of 20-30. His mummy was purchased in Thebes, his likely place of death.

The young man was "relatively short in stature," according to Wade.

Lywood is one of the world's leading experts on such recreations.

"I reconstruct modern-day skulls, archaeological remains and fragmentary skulls," she told Discovery News. "The oldest I have constructed was from 6,000 years ago found in Israel. While there were people of all sizes throughout the ages, my experience is that skull size was much smaller than modern populations."

This Ptolemaic female was a "late adolescent girl or young woman of average height and elite status," Wade said. "Her age at death is estimated at between 18 and 24 years."

Her mummy was found "in a tomb pit in the solid rock near Hawara el-Makta in Fayum (Lower Egypt) and acquired in Egypt towards the end of the 19th century and donated to the Redpath Museum in 1895," Lawson said.

Clearly ancient Egyptians prized fashionable coifs, given the complexity of the young woman's hairstyle.

Her hair must have been fixed before mummification, perhaps in hopes of sending her off to the next life looking her best.

The hairdo of a young ancient Egyptian female was reconstructed on a modern woman.

The reconstructed young woman is shown here without her wig. Clearly her hair was a big part of her look.

The oldest individual of the three was this woman -- likely a tall, upper middle-class adult between the ages of 30 and 50 years old.

If she were alive today, this woman (at least based on her physical appearance) would probably fit right in with modern society.

As Wade said, "Humans have been physically pretty much the same for the last 2,000 years...That's not to say that evolution has stopped working on us, but the time frame of 2,000 years is just a drop in the bucket for noticeable physical changes and we've reduced the need for physical changes by adapting culturally."

The three ancient Egyptian people died at somewhat different times and never knew each other. But, as reconstructions, the early Egyptians will spend even more time together, because they will star in a new display in the Redpath Museum's World Cultures gallery starting in February.