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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