A Real Game of Thrones

July 31, 2015

By Medical Discovery News

The mummies of ancient Egypt have given science much insight into their lives and deaths. Just a year ago they unearthed an unknown pharaoh from a dynasty whose existence historians had only speculated. Although ancient tomb robbers had torn his mummy apart, modern archeologists have cataloged the 18 blows he suffered in battle that led to his death over 3,600 years ago.

An expedition led by archeologist Josef Wegner from the University of Pennsylvania at Abydos in Sohang Province (about 300 miles south of Cairo) discovered the tomb of Woseribre Senebkay, who lived from about 1650-1600 BC, and was probably one of the first kings of a dynasty in Abydos. The tomb consisted of four chambers, which was modest for a pharaoh, and a burial chamber made of limestone with the goddesses Nut, Nephthys, Selket, and Isis painted on the walls. The discovery confirms the existence of a separate dynasty in Abydos, which was suggested by Egyptologist K. Ryholt in 1997. It also identifies the necropolis as a site called Anubis Mountain.

Nearby, archeologists discovered another royal tomb belonging to Sobekhotep I of the 13th dynasty, who died around 1780 BC. Interestingly, Senebkay’s canopic chest, which housed jars of internal organs, was reused from this earlier king and still bore his name covered over by gilding. A 16-ton sarcophagus made of rose quartzite was also reused from an earlier era, suggesting that this dynasty had limited resources and faced pressure from larger kingdoms surrounding it: Thebes to the north and Hyksos to the south.

Archeologists were able to recover the pieces of Senebkay, reassemble his skeleton, and perform a full forensic analysis. He was about 5’10” tall and died in his 40s. He suffered 18 wounds that penetrated to the bone, including large cuts to his feet, ankles, and lower back. There were multiple skull injuries that were similar to the size and curvature of Egyptian battle axes. The scientists theorize that the pharaoh was either mounted on horseback or in a chariot when the attack occurred, so to bring him to ground his numerous assailants slashed at his legs, feet and back. Then they killed him with blows to the head.

The use of horses in battle was not common until after 1200 BC, some 350 years later, but it is thought the Egyptians might have begun using them much earlier. Indeed, examination of Senebkay’s legs and pelvis showed signs that he spent much of his time on horseback. It also appears that he was killed far from his home as his mummification happened long after his death.

What we don’t know is who killed him, whether he was battling against Hyksos rulers, Thebans, or some other group. This was a time when the central authority of Egypt collapsed, dividing the nation into many small kingdoms. However, his tomb has brought to light more of the history of these ancient people. Who knows what’s left to find, buried in the sands of Egypt.

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The Tomb of an Egyptian Doctor

Feb. 14, 2014

By Medical Discovery News

It’s not every day that archaeologists uncover the tomb of an Egyptian pharaoh. But on one special day they discovered not the tomb of a pharaoh but the physician to them. Abusir, the great royal cemetery south of Cairo, is the final resting place of Shepseskaf-Ankh, head physician of Upper and Lower Egypt during the fifth dynasty of the old kingdom.

This tomb was dated to about 2400 BC. By this time, the famous pyramids of Giza had already been constructed, so rulers of the fifth dynasty built pyramids farther south between 2465 and 2325 BC. This is the third tomb of a physician discovered so far. They were entombed along with other court officials and high level priests close to the rulers they served in life, and would continue to do in death, according to Egyptian beliefs of the afterlife. 

Shepseskaf-Ankh was from an elite Egyptian family and also held the title of priest, which was carved on the door of the tomb. It is a relatively large tomb, another indicator of his importance, with an open court along with eight burial chambers for him and his family. 

Egyptians were known for their cleanliness and were afraid of illness and disease, so medicine became an important pursuit and was surprisingly sophisticated for its time. Egyptians bathed often, shaved off all their body hair, and ate a diet that excluded “unclean” animals including fish. Some illnesses were attributed to angry gods or evil spirits and some treatments involved rituals and prayers. However, Egyptians also experimented and studied the human body, correlating anatomical changes with disease processes and developing experimental treatments. The mummification rituals provided excellent opportunities to learn about disease, healing, and anatomy. 

The Ebers Papyrus, dated to 3000 BC, is a collection of ancient Egyptian medical texts. It contains information about magical spells designed to protect from supernatural intervention on diagnosis and treatment. This is followed by sections on intestinal parasites, skin diseases, digestive diseases, diseases of the head, flow of urine, hair, traumatic injuries, and diseases of the extremities. The papyrus follows a relatively standardized format of listing prescriptions to relieve medical ailments, some of which had been made and used by the gods. However, the diseases themselves are often more difficult to translate. Other papyri devoted to specific topics like obstetrics and gynecology have been discovered as well.

Much has been learned about the ailments of ancient Egyptians from their well-preserved mummies. For example, researchers have found evidence of tapeworms, tuberculosis, and polio. There is also abundant evidence of genetic disorders among mummies. 

Thanks to their preservation methods, modern man can study the ailments that plagued those Egyptians who could afford to be mummified in preparation for their journey into the afterlife. We also have a glimpse into the physicians and treatments they had available at the time. However, the poorer segment of the population suffered a great deal more and was under-served by the medical community, an issue we still face today.

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