Unravelling mummy mysteries

Unravelling mummy mysteries

Unravelling mummy mysteries

Dr Yann Tristant and Dr Ronika K Power working with a mummy in the Australian School of Advanced Medicine, Macquarie University Hospital.

Image credit: Strangers in a Strange Land Project

Biocultural archaeologist and Big History Institute Academic Member, Dr Ronika K Power talks mummies, history and 'living libraries' with Kathryn Ford, Project Coordinator at the Institute. 

Dr Ronika K Power has worked alongside a lot of mummies in the last 10 years.  Each has a story interwoven into the fabric of their body, a history waiting to be untangled.  As a biocultural archaeologist it's Dr Power's job to peel back the layers and sift through the bone, skin, hair and wrapping to find that story.

"I'm actually more interested in how people lived and what a lived experience was in the deep past, versus only wanting to find out the way that they died," Dr Power says. "What can their bodies tell us about their lives? What can their bodies in association with every other aspect of the archaeological record tell us about the way that they lived?"

'Strangers in a Strange Land' is the innovative research project Dr Power, from the University of Cambridge, and her Macquarie University colleague Dr Yann Tristant, are working on in collaboration with Professor John Magnussen at Macquarie Medical Imaging. Together, they are using CT scanners and x-ray machines at Macquarie University Hospital to analyse mummified human remains from ancient Egypt without disturbing the integrity of the materials.

This careful consideration of the mummies is in stark contrast to the messy 'unwrapping parties' that took place during the Victorian Era, where the English aristocracy would bring back mummies to fill their museums and cabinets of curiosities.

"The thing about many archaeological investigations is that the actual process of discovery can be destructive," says Dr Power. "Once you unwrap the mummies and take off the bandages you can never get back to that original state. They will never be culturally complete following that intervention."

In co-operation with the Australian Museum and the Museum of Ancient Cultures here on campus, this non-invasive technique seeks to uncover stories about life and the Egyptian community and culture. So far the team have analysed an individual human head and an entire mummified body. 

This piecing together of the human jigsaw puzzle is something Dr Power calls the creation of "biographies in bone." 

She says that the more we can understand the evolution of the human condition and the way we have responded to various biological and environmental phenomena over time, the better equipped we will be for the future. Previous human experiences provide great insight into potential futures and impact development in the fields of medicine, pharmacology, general health and nutrition.

"I believe that history is the currency of culture," Dr Power says, "and we are who we are today because of everything that has gone before us.  And that applies no matter what you are talking about. The kind of work we are doing feeds to our understanding of the human condition."

Dr Power's research and exploration of the human past aligns with Big History's interdisciplinary approach to learning and problem solving, especially as she explains "in terms of considering the relationship between the deep, unimaginable past and this very moment in the present."

"I think of people around me as a 'living library', as a living embodiment and coalescence of all the biological, cultural and social histories that have come up until this moment.  We are part of a continuum. To me, that is why the Big History approach is so productive. It calls us to think about our place in that continuum. It calls us to reflect on where we, as a species, as populations, and as individuals, have sat in respect to global history. It's my job to try and untangle these questions regarding our past in order to help us understand who we are in this moment and where our human legacies might lie in the future."

Dr Ronika K Power will be speaking at the Big History Anthropocene conference (Wednesday 9 to Friday 11 December) on the Climate Change, Health and Population panel. Dr Power will also be answering your questions on the Big History, Big Future Discussion Panel alongside 7 experts from a range of disciplines. Register for the conference here.

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