A legs of a woman were mummified using ancient Egyptian practices by researchers from Switzerland. Investigators wanted to learn more about the process of ancient mummification, and the best way to do that, they reasoned, was by carrying out the process.

University of Zurich researchers baked one leg in an oven to try to dehydrate it, while the other was bathed in a salt solution, in accordance with what is known about the traditional process.  

The mummification process took about seven months to complete, compared with the two-month timescale recorded in ancient texts. The condition of the limb was carefully monitored through standard visual, as well as microscopic, means. In addition, researchers carried out DNA analysis and examined the limb with X-rays.

Ancient Egyptians often mummified people and pets when they died to prepare the bodies for the afterlife. Most of what modern researchers know about the ancient practice comes from the writing of the Greek historian Herodotus, who lived five centuries before the Common Era began.

Mummies in ancient Egypt were created from corpses from which the brain and other organs were removed. The abdominal cavity and chest would then be sterilized, and the body would be placed in a natron solution containing sodium bicarbonate and soda ash. This bath would prevent bodies from rotting, and the treated corpses would then be wrapped in linen before being placed in their final resting spots.

The legs from the cadaver had been donated to science and were held by the University of Zurich. Using just the legs was a far simpler task than attempting to mummify an entire body.

"If we used the whole body, we would have had to cut it up and take out the intestines [and other organs]," Christina Papageorgopoulou, a physical anthropologist at the Democritus University of Thrace, said.

The leg treated with heat alone, serving as a control experiment, failed to mummify, and that limb was abandoned after around one week.

Researchers believe the length of the process compared with ancient reports may have been due to the cool, moist conditions of the lab, compared with the more arid conditions of Egypt.

Previous attempts have been undertaken to mummify modern people and body parts. However, this research was the first to carry out the process and monitor results with modern scientific methods.

Mummification of the 21st-century leg using traditional Egyptian techniques was detailed in The Anatomical Record.

Photo: R. Nial Bradshaw | Flickr

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