Mummy Shows Ancient Egyptians Bleached Their Skin

A mummy's skin disorder reveals signs that the woman regularly bleached her skin.

Evidence that the ancient Egyptians plastered on killer cosmetics to whiten their skin has been found in a 3,500-year-old mummy head.

Belonging to an anonymous woman age 20-25, the head shows tiny nodules under the cheeks and at the back of the neck that point to a possible skin disorder called exogenous ochronosis.

"Such dermatosis is caused by the extensive use of skin bleaching cosmetics," ‎Despina Moissidou, an anthropologist at Nation Kapodistrian University of Athens, Greece, told Discovery News.

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History suggests that a lightened tone of the skin might have made the difference in Egyptian society.

"Perhaps it was a symbol of high social status, indicating the individual did not perform hard outdoor work or work at all, just like the deformed feet or the extremely long nails for the ancient high-class Chinese women," Angel Gonzalez, a collaborator at the School of Legal Medicine in Madrid, told Discovery News.

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Moissidou and colleagues at the University of Madrid and Athens presented their research at the recent International Conference of Comparative Mummy Studies in Hildesheim, Germany.

The mummified head, which currently belongs to the Museo de Antropología Médica, Forense, Paleopatología y Criminalística in Madrid, Spain, was first described as the "beheaded head of a Guinean negress young woman."

The head's true origins were found only in 2007, when Moissidou and colleagues traced the mummified remains back to the Theban Necropolis archaeological area in Egypt. The head's mummification technique made it possible to date it to the 18th Dynasty of the New Kingdom.

This is the best known ancient Egyptian dynasty as it includes several famous pharaohs, such as Hatshepsut, Amenhotep III, Akhenaten and Tutankhamun. The researchers believe the woman lived in a period between the reign of Thutmose II and Thutmose III.

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The head's whereabouts are still a mystery. Its recorded history begins sometime between 1898-1930, when it appears in the Cairo Museum. The head was then sold to the Spanish collector and banker Ignacio Bauer and finally donated to the Real Sociedad de Arqueología, Antropologíay Prehistoria in Madrid.

"Looking at the accurate embalming, we can say this lady was an important member of the Egyptian society of the time," Gonzalez said.

Moissidou and colleagues carried out several examinations to confirm the diagnosis of exogenous ochronosis.

"Samples were retrieved from the base of the neck and were sent for histological examination," Moissidou said.

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The primary results showed a chronic skin inflammation, while chemistry confirmed it. Electron microscopy revealed striking similarities with contemporary tissue affected by exogenous ochronosis.

"We know the ancient Egyptians regarded the use of cosmetics both for aesthetic purposes as well as magical and religious ones. Cosmetic pigments were indeed used on a daily basis," Moissidou said.

But many of the cosmetics used by the Egyptians included lead as a basic component, which could cause skin inflammation as well as skin diseases.

Intriguingly, the use of such cosmetics was common among members of royal families.

"This opens up new interesting questions on the head's identity. Further research is now needed," Moissidou said.

Some thirty mummies were found during restoration work in the church of the Assumption of Our Lady in the village of Quinto, near Zaragoza, Spain. The church, also known as the "Piquete," had suffered structural damage during the Spanish Civil War (1936-1939).

Credit: Instituto de Estudios Científicos en Momias, Madrid

The mummies were discovered when a part of the church floor was removed to install a heating system in 2011.

Credit: Instituto de Estudios Científicos en Momias, Madrid

To the workers' surprise, the mummified bodies, some in very good state of preservation, emerged from partly opened wooden coffins.

Credit: Instituto de Estudios Científicos en Momias, Madrid

The bodies were mummified naturally thanks to the very dry soil. They date from the late 18th to mid-19th century, based on their clothing.

Credit: Instituto de Estudios Científicos en Momias, Madrid

Some had unusually well preserved facial hair.

Credit: Jorge Sesé

All mummified bodies - 11 adults and 24 children - were stored in a chapel of the church, and there they remained, wrapped in cloths, waiting for analysis.

Credit: Instituto de Estudios Científicos en Momias, Madrid

In 2014 a project was finally launched to study and restore the collection exhumed in the church and a lab was created at the site.

Credit: Instituto de Estudios Científicos en Momias, Madrid

Among the mummified bodies, one bears an impressive resemblance to the famous self-portrait by Vincent Van Gogh.

The individual, who might have been in his 40's when he died, was found clothed in Franciscan habits.

Credit: Instituto de Estudios Científicos en Momias, Madrid

Most mummies still have perfectly preserved hair and beards.

"Hair usually maintains very well in dry environments,especially if there are no insects such as Dermestidae, or skin beetles," González said.

Credit: Instituto de Estudios Científicos en Momias, Madrid

The mummies were CT scanned to find potential pathologies. The researchers are currently waiting for the results that were sent to several international institutions. González noted that in the region of Aragon, to which Quinto belongs, there were several epidemics.

Credit: María Belchi

The large number of children found in the burials suggests that epidemics were the main cause of death. So far the children studied range in age from six to nine months and seven years old. In this CT scans it appears the child has a possible pathology in his right foot.

Credit: Instituto de Estudios Científicos en Momias, Madrid

González, who is continuing restoration work on the mummies, will detail preliminary scientific results at the World Congress on Mummy Studies which takes place in August in Lima, Peru.

Credit: Instituto de Estudios Científicos en Momias, Madrid