Ancient Egyptians Forced Open Mouths During Mummification

People in ancient Egypt were likely to lose some of their front teeth before they could become mummies.

Ancient Egyptians were likely to lose some of their front teeth before they could become mummies, says a new research debated at the International Congress of Egyptologists in Florence.

Taking place after excerebration (brain removal) and evisceration (body organ removal) and before final wrapping, the procedure would force open the mouths of the deceased with a knife and iron chisel, breaking and dislocating teeth in the process.

The procedure appears to be in contrast to the delicate and thoughtful steps taken during the mummification process.

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The "opening of the mouth" was so far known to Egyptologists as a central yet innocuous ritual in mummification, aimed at restoring the deceased's senses for the afterlife.

The symbolic animation of the finished mummy was achieved through a series of ritual actions that involved the repeated touching of the mouth and eyes with various specialized implements.

"These actions were accompanied by recitation of specific formulae and incantations in order to enable the deceased to breathe, eat, drink, hear, and see, and ultimately survive the afterlife," said Mariam Ayad, associate professor of Egyptology at the American University in Cairo.

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Ayad presented a study on the opening of the mouth ritual as seen in scenes from ancient Egyptian mortuary monuments.

But according to mummy expert Frank Rühli, director of the Institute of Evolutionary Medicine at the University of Zurich, parts of the ceremony actually correspond to a physical and sometime probably rather brutal opening of the deceased's mouth.

"Fractures and avulsions of front teeth, which were up to now not sufficiently taken into consideration, are the first evidence for a real physical opening of the mouth procedure during mummification," Rühli told Discovery News.

Ancient Egyptians Forced Open Mouths During Mummification: Page 2

A CT scan of a female mummy, dating from the 8th to 7th century BC and kept at the Musee d'art et d'histoire, Geneva, Switzerland, shows several teeth in the rear of the oral cavity. | © The Anatomical Record, 298:1208–1216 2015, Wiley Periodicals, Inc.

Rühli and dentist Roger Seiler from the Institute of Evolutionary Medicine at the University of Zurich, investigated 51 mummies from the Swiss Mummy project and more than 100 from the skull collection of the University of Zurich Anthropological Institute and Museum.

It emerged that several mummies suffered postmortem (after death) trauma to the teeth, and CT scans even showed that in some cases broken teeth ended up deep down in the throat.

"One learns from the texts of the ritual of embalming that after the surgical treatment and the dehydration, the dead body was again cleaned and anointed before being wrapped," the researchers wrote in a issue of the journal The Anatomical Record entirely devoted to the study of mummies around the world.

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Based on what was written in the papyri detailing the mummification of the Apis bull, which corresponds to embalming of high-status people, the jaws had to be forced apart with instruments as a priest "put his hand in his mouth as far as his hand can reach."

In order to wipe out and anoint the oral cavity with oil and resins, the priest laid two cloths on the opening of the throat, a third on the lower jaw and a fourth inside the mouth.

"These manipulations caused in many cases teeth fractures and dislocations seen frequently in ancient Egyptian mummies," Rühli said.

He noted that the term "opening of the mouth procedure" should now be used to distinguish it from the purely symbolic actions of the opening of the mouth ritual.

A CT scan of a female mummy, dating from the 8th to 7th century BC and kept at the Musee d’art et d’histoire, Geneva, Switzerland, shows several teeth in the rear of the oral cavity.

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.