Secrets the ancient Egyptians had hoped to keep to themselves

David Aaronovitch unexpected uses for mummified dna
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The Independent Online
Old Seti II is not much to look at (though his admirers are keen to point out that he's borne up better than Senwosret IV). His skin is black and desiccated, his teeth are cracked, his genitals are no more than a shrivelled flap between his stick-like thighs, and his hand has an unpleasant habit of working itself loose, and sliding over his shrunken chest, to the bottom of his box. So, despite the fact that he's remarkably well-preserved for a 3,000-year-old, you wouldn't expect him to be of use to anyone now. No point in asking him the way to the feluccas.

Actually, that's not true. Perhaps ten years ago we might not have counted on getting very much out of an Egyptian mummy (unless we were superstitious), but now we are a nation of cadaverophiles. Poking dead bodies and interrogating their mute remains, has become something of an obsession. We're all at it. That artist bloke (the one with with the posh name accused of purloining body parts, casting them in metal and then hiding the originals inside tupperware boxes in the flats of unsuspecting girl-friends) was just the tip of the iceberg.

TV factual shows, such as Time Team, Shadows of Our Ancestors and Ice Mummies, and fictional pathologist-as-sexy-hero ones (you know: "Let's take a look at the brain." "Grrgghhh!" "It's his first time, Dr Skinner"), such as Silent Witness and McCallum, testify to our fascination with the dead. Like those weird Madagascan "relative retrieval" rituals, you hardly have time to bury your relatives these days, before some academic or arty type wants to dig them up again, and reconstruct them.

Because, of course, there is so much to find out! A recent edition of the "Journal of the Autonomic Nervous System" (de rigeur in our household since the Murdoch and China business disillusioned us with the Times) - vol 67, p 105, to be exact - reported on the findings of a team looking at the neurotransmitters of the long embalmed. They took nerves from the ankles of number of Egyptian mummies who kicked the earthenware sometime between 500 and 2000 BC, and a teasing little sample from just one Peruvian mummy of slightly more recent origin.

These enterprising palaeo-neurobiologists sliced up the nerves, embedded them in wax, and then (but, of course, you know all this) incubated them with antibodies. Their findings were both dramatic and incomprehensible. Suffice it to say that Professor Otto Appenzeller concluded that, in the near future, we would be able to discover all kinds of things about the people of the past that we do not now know.

Then, just this week, came the story of how the custodians of Manchester University's Egyptian Mummy Tissue Bank have written to thousands of institutions worldwide asking for a lend of their corpses. Dr Rosalie David told the BBC Today programme that the technique was to "go in with industrial endoscopes through existing bodily holes". There's a charming discretion here, as though Dr David wished to reassure us that she for one, would never be party to making new holes in old bodies.

Anyway, she was hoping, she continued, to be able to tell what diseases the mummies had suffered from, what they looked like (eye colour, etc.) and - with the help of DNA - which other mummies they were related to.

At the moment, of course, all we have to go on is all those heroic murals and stelae, depicting vigorous Pharoahs smiting their enemies or communing with a series of improbable gods. There is a timeless tendency for important figures to present themselves in an impossibly good light in public. When was the last time, for instance, that a party leader, mid-Dimbleby, let loose a loud fart? And yet we presume that pockets of wind travel the intestines of the famous, as they do ours.

This is intriguing. Was Nefertiti a natural blonde? Or perhaps Tutankhamun was a drying-out alcoholic. Imagine our pleasure when it is proved that Amenhotep III (the model, you will remember, for the Colossi of Memnon at Thebes), was three-foot tall, syphilitic, suffered from chronic hemaerrhoids and had feet covered in veruccas.

And - if sex addiction could be traced - all those bad-tempered attacks on various Libyans, Nubians, Sea-Peoples, Hittites, Hattians, Philistines and Hebrews by Ramesses the Great might be explained by a need to divert attention away from various palace entanglements with the Iron Age precursors of Monica Lewinsky and Paula Jones. The principle "he that has been smitten must himself smite" may be older than we thought.

My own favourite conjecture is that, in Shelley's vast and trackless desert, an Egyptian king with a slight speech impediment had caused to be carved in stone the legend: "My name ith Othymandiath, king of kingth, gathe on my workth ye mortalth and dethpair."

There is, in all this, a wonderful irony. Thousands of years ago, a static and superstitious ruling class had the bodies of their kings and priests eviscerated, their skins elaborately prepared by the application of unspeakable unguents, wrapped in bandages, shoved inside a wooden box, then a stone sarcophagus, and finally placed in a hidden tomb - all in the absurd belief that, somehow, the mummified individual would one day live again. And the bugger of it is, of course, that it worked.

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