The Baby Mummy

(Virtually) Unwrapped
Piecing together the untimely circumstances of a life lived 2,000 years ago



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For more than two decades, the baby mummy remained in a storage facility at the Saint Louis Science Center.

One day last spring, Washington University scientist Charles F. Hildebolt got an intriguing phone call. A mummy had turned up in the storage facility of the Saint Louis Science Center (SLSC), but no one knew much about it. Could he and his colleagues do some detective work to learn more?

"When you hear the word 'mummy,' you think big box or large tomb," says Hildebolt, DDS, PhD, a dentist and anthropologist in the Department of Radiology. "It was a surprise when we got over there and found that this was a small child, partly unwrapped and in a little pine box. We said, 'Wow! This is really interesting.' But we didn't know exactly what we'd be able to find out."

Charles F. Hildebolt, DDS, PhD, enlisted the help of Li Cao, MD, center, and Anne M. Bowcock, PhD, to retrieve and analyze the baby mummy's DNA.

Hildebolt and other volunteer investigators from the School of Medicine, helped by experts from around the world, began a yearlong quest to uncover the mummy's past. Assisted by the latest technology — sophisticated CT scanning, DNA analysis and radiocarbon dating — they pieced together a likely story of love and loss, of ancient Egypt and European conquerors, of theft and recovery, that has attracted international attention.

At the same time, they made a bit of scientific history. Although the record of child mummies in existence is still incomplete, they are "exceedingly rare," says Hildebolt. The extensive research they have done to understand this one may well rank, he says, "as the most extensive work ever done on a child mummy."

What information they had when they began came from SLSC records. Around the turn of the last century, a dentist from Hermann MO was traveling in the Middle East when he acquired the mummy as a keepsake. Back home, a niece eventually inherited it, and she brought it out for display on Halloween. Her family donated it to the SLSC in 1985.

For two decades, the small mummy remained in the SLSC storage facility until new vice president Al Wiman noticed it in 2006. "The first thing I asked was 'What do you know about it?' Well, they knew it was a boy," he says today. "'Do you know anything else?' No, they didn't."

Once Washington University agreed to help, Mallinckrodt Institute of Radiology was the first stop. Hildebolt, a veteran of other forensic detection efforts, recruited Kirk Smith, a senior research engineer with CT expertise. Smith did the full-body scanning, and Hildebolt and pediatric radiologist Steven Don, MD, studied the results in hopes of determining the child's age and cause of death.

"It was just what a doctor would do with a living patient except that we could scan at a very high resolution, with an X-ray dose you would not use on a live person," says Smith. "We also have state-of-the-art CT scanners, among the best in the world."

They captured some 1,000 CT slices, which Smith integrated for an overall look and segmented for close-ups. From the teeth and cranial sutures, Hildebolt and Don established the child's age: 7 to 8 months. They hypothesized that, in the tradition of Egyptian mummification, his organs had been removed through a hole in his left side and his brain through his left nostril. Within the mummy, they could see amulets at a tantalizing distance, but couldn't make out any inscriptions that might pinpoint the child's identity.

Canopic jars (reproductions pictured here) were used to hold the dried internal organs of Egyptian mummies.

So far, everything indicated an Egyptian place of origin, but how to prove it? Other cultures also mummified the dead. With the help of paleoneuroanatomist Dean Falk, PhD, from Florida State University, who confirmed the brain removal, they contacted Salima Ikram, PhD, an Egyptologist at the American University in Cairo. Snipping a postage-stamp-sized piece of the wrapping material, they sent it to Ikram, who passed it on to Emilia Cortés, a textile conservator at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. She determined it was Egyptian wrapping material from the Roman period in Egypt, around 2,000 years ago.

Ikram unraveled other pieces of the mystery. True to Roman-period mummification custom, this mummy had a wooden rod placed at its back for support. The dark brown color of the body and the linen wrapping — turned gentle shades of beige in the CT scans — was the product of resins and oils used in the 70-day mummification process. As to the mummy's origin, Ikram says, it "definitely" came from a grave that was plundered by robbers, "but several sites are possible, so I shall not speculate."

Sadly, its very existence may point to sorrow that resonates through the centuries. The parents of this child were wealthy, since they could afford to mummify their child, and they were likely heartbroken at their loss.

"This was certainly a loved child," says Hildebolt, "for the family to go to the cost, trouble and time to have him mummified."

But the investigation also left some questions unanswered. Since the bones showed no injury, the team still does not know the cause of death. At first the skull seemed a bit enlarged, possibly due to hydrocephaly, but Don's measurements proved it was within the normal range. And who were the parents? Would further testing corroborate the mummy's time period?

With funding from the SLSC, university researchers sent another swatch of wrapping to a laboratory for radiocarbon dating; with 95 percent certainty, the results showed a close match. This baby lived sometime between 40 BC and 130 AD, at the end of the Macedonian-Egyptian period of control and the beginning of Roman rule under Caesar Augustus.

"So this child could easily have been alive at the same time as Cleopatra, Marc Antony, Julius Caesar and Octavian," says Hildebolt.

To trace the baby's roots, they contacted Washington University geneticist Anne M. Bowcock, PhD, who enlisted researcher Li Cao, MD, to help retrieve and analyze DNA. This process was fraught with problems. For one thing, they needed to find uncontaminated DNA, deep inside the body. For another, the mummy was rock hard, yet they didn't want to damage it. Using instruments designed for spinal punctures, they bored into its bone through existing holes in the skin, extracting samples from several sites.

Targeting the mitochondrial DNA, they amplified and sequenced their samples, checking the results with Douglas C. Wallace, PhD, of the University of California-Irvine, a mitochondrial expert. Next came a major surprise: This kind of DNA, provided by the maternal side, showed that this child's mother came of European lineage — perhaps a Roman or Greek living in Egypt. So far, the researchers have not been able to amplify the child's nuclear DNA, which would show the father's lineage.

More questions linger, but the "Child Mummy," as the SLSC calls it, has generated an excited response from visitors, who have flocked to the new permanent exhibit.

The respectful treatment given this long-ago child also pleases Ikram. "I am delighted with the results," she says, "and feel that the ancient Egyptians would have been, too."