Al-Ahram Weekly Online   20 - 26 January 2005
Issue No. 726
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Mummy scan furore

The CT scan carried out last week on Tutankhamun's mummy has triggered a fierce debate among archaeologists. Nevine El-Aref investigates

Click to view caption
Luxor team removing Tutankhamun's golden sarcophagus

When the Ministry of Culture and the Supreme Council of Antiquities (SCA) launched a five-year project to examine and study all Ancient Egyptian mummies by means of CT scanning in order to ascertain how they can be best conserved, the idea was applauded.

Eleven mummies in the Egyptian Museum were scanned. However, when it came to the turn of the Pharaoh Tutankhamun, some archaeologists and scientists were none too happy. While the project's supporters saw it as a revolutionary endeavour to resolve the mystery surrounding the early death of Tutankhamun, its opponents suggested it was more of a media circus than pure science. A media campaign launched to question the usefulness of the procedure and its results accused the Egyptian mission who carried out the CT scan of being unprofessional, ambiguous, reckless and impatient to implement its attempt.

What triggered the controversy was the sudden withdrawal -- a week before Tutankhamun's scanning -- of orthopaedist professor Saleh Bedeir, who was leading the scientific team, and his statement regarding Tutankhamun's computed tomography.

"What has been done by the Luxor Night Campaign [the scientific mission] is another zero to add to the group of zeros we have obtained already," Bedeir told Al- Ahram Weekly in a telephone interview.

He accused the team of being unethical in implementing their forensic examination, as well as disregarding the use of scientific procedures while removing the fragile mummy from its golden sarcophagus. This, he said, put the mummy under real threat of contamination, decomposition and deterioration. Bedeir told the Weekly that, despite his full support for using an advanced machine to delve inside a mummy and uncover its secrets, the project had lost its way and its credibility.

"Instead of being a very important scientific event it only serves media addicts," he commented. He pointed out that what had been done was completely different from the plan he had submitted for approval to the SCA Permanent Committee (SCAPC). He said the original plan was to start with unidentified and non-royal mummies in order to gain experience before going on to the royals, ending with Tutankhamun. "But, after scanning the 11 mummies, all the attention suddenly turned to Tutankhamun's mummy without any previous intention. Why the rush?" Bedeir asked.

Despite his personal respect for the radiologists chosen to accompany the team, and for their medical experience, Bedeir said they knew nothing when it came to reading the images of mummies. By contrast with their lack of training, he himself had spent five years studying Ancient Egyptian history and learning about mummies.

"It is unfortunate that all the problems that have arisen are in direct relation to the administrative measures taken, and not to the scientific work itself," says Mohamed Abdel- Maqsoud, head of antiquities of Lower Egypt and also a member of the SCAPC. Abdel- Maqsoud said Bedeir was the SCAPC member who submitted the plan for Tutankhamun's mummy and convinced the other members so as to gain their approval. He was also the one who suggested transferring the mummy from its tomb in Luxor's Valley of the Kings to the Egyptian Museum in Cairo for the scan. However, because of the mummy's fragility, Abdel-Maqsoud says, the SCAPC decided that the studies would be carried out in situ in his tomb.

"How could Bedeir evaluate the work without seeing the process and before the results were announced?" he said. "Why oppose the use of advanced technology in archaeology?"

Abdel-Maqsoud points out that 50 years ago archaeological surveys were only carried out by digging, but now an area can be explored by radar so the location of a buried object can be determined without digging the whole site.

At the same time, according to official papers obtained by the Weekly and this newspaper's interview with Bedeir, the medical team Bedeir describes as "ignorant" includes the three radiologists he himself chose to help read the scans.

Bedeir has also said Hani Abdel- Rahman, the Siemens representative in the operation of the CT scanner, is not qualified. "He is a veterinarian and a pharmacologist in the National Research Centre," Bedeir is reported to have said.

This statement is contradicted by a photograph obtained by the Weekly showing Bedeir, along with SCA Secretary- General Zahi Hawass, listening to Abdel- Rahman's instructions while they examined a mummy of a young child in the Egyptian Museum.

So, why launch a campaign against these doctors now?

Abdel-Halim Nureddin, dean of the Fayoum branch of the Faculty of Archaeology at Cairo University, says there was no transparency over the proposals. "Before implementing the scan a member of Luxor team might have informed other archaeologists about the process and whether the mummy would be safe under scanning," Nureddin says. He blamed the team for not sterilising the tomb before opening the golden sarcophagus, especially as it was opened after a long visiting day. "Safety precautions regarding unexpected natural phenomena were not taken into consideration," he says, adding that the absence of a mummy specialist was "a disaster". He said a long plastic tube could have been connected the sarcophagus to the CT scanner so the mummy need not have been exposed to the air. He also called on the SCAPC to issue a release explaining the whole project.

Meanwhile Gaballa Ali Gaballa, former SCA secretary-general, agreed with the use of advanced technology to expose the Pharaohs' secrets. However he doubted that all the information would be disclosed, and asked: Did the project gain the approval of the SCAPC? What exactly was the role of the National Geographic Media Company in the project? Did it offer the CT scanner for scientific purposes, or was there a deal to photograph every step of the examination, especially Tutankhamun? Who would control the distribution of the resulting information? Why was the Egyptian media excluded from witnessing the event, but not the foreign press? What did National Geographic pay for exclusivity? "All these questions must be answered," Gaballa told the Weekly.

During Gaballa's tenure a DNA analysis was attempted on Tutankhamun's mummy in collaboration with Waseda University, but due to security measures the whole project was cancelled an hour before implementation. A similar thing happened during the Nureddin tenure, but this time on other royal mummies.

Mohamed Saleh, former director of the Egyptian Museum, said that when he was in office in the 1990s samples from 10 royal mummies at the Egyptian Museum were taken by foreign missions for DNA analysis, but until now no results had been submitted. Saleh said the cause of the controversy was that Tutankhamun was involved, since his early death and rich treasure had led to much speculation. Almost seven years ago two former officers from Scotland Yard claimed that they had investigated the history books and knew who killed Tutankhamun.

Saleh, a member of the international- Egyptian team which examined Tutankhamun's mummy in 1968, said it was in very poor condition although the head, which was cut off at the neck, was well preserved and showed all the facial features. The mummy was damaged by Carter himself when he removed the famous gilded mask. He used sharp tools to extract the skull from the mask, separated the pelvis from the trunk and detached the arms and legs, as well as doing assorted damage to the body. Carter also probed with hot knives and iron bars into Tutankhamun's body to remove the amulets that decorated it. To make it appear intact, Carter and his team reconstructed the dismembered body in a sand tray, arranging it carefully and even rejoining the hands and feet to the limbs with resin. "The fingers were scattered all over the box and the 1968 team spent hours and hours trying to solve the enigma and return each finger to its original position," Saleh said. "What has happened is only scientific research and does not have any ideological base."

Meanwhile Ahmed Abdel-Fatah, a national archaeological expert and a member of the SCAPC, claims the anti-scan campaign is directed against Hawass. He told the Weekly that, despite Carter's aggression with the mummy, no one blamed him for his actions. When the mummy was examined in 1968 it was found that Carter had put the mummy in a wooden box previously used as a sugar container, but none of the respected archaeologists commented. When Zahi Eskandar held Tutankhamun's head in both hands for a media photocell during the examination, no one launched a campaign against him. In the 1968 and 1978 examinations, no safety precautions were taken into consideration and the tomb was not previously sterilised, so where were the people concerned about the mummy's safety then?

Asked to answer accusations launched against the project, Hawass said Tutankhamun's scan was carried out by a professional team of archeologists, restorers and scientists who followed the plan that had the approval of the SCAPC. As for National Geographic, he said it provided the CT scanner -- which cost $1 million -- in collaboration with Siemens. It had offered another $500,000 to maintain the device.

"There is no exclusivity for National Geographic," Hawass insisted. He told the Weekly that at first National Geographic had asked for exclusivity but this was denied. In proof of this, Hawass said, it was Egyptian Television which first broadcast the event.

Hawass said the SCA was the only authority with the upper hand in the project, and owned the intellectual possession of any images taken, as well as information, studies, results and documentary films to be made in the future for screening in Egyptian museums.

"We have a full detailed contract with the National Geographic that has the approval of the SCA administrative Council," Hawass said. He pointed out that the absence of the Egyptian media was intentional because the number of journalists inside the tomb would have caused contamination.

"To protect the mummy the press was excluded and my press office fed them with all the information and photographs they needed for their articles," he said.

Now the medical team is examining and studying the 1,700 images taken.

"I will never put Tutankhamun's mummy under threat," Hawass said. "Before being the SCA secretary- general, I am an Egyptian archeologist who is keen on my country's heritage and I will never put it in any controversial situation. If the scan had one per cent effect on the mummy I would cancel the whole project because these are the remains of our ancestors who created our magnificent ancient civilisation."

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