27 October 2009

Mummies tell tales

Here is yet another reason why I want to be cremated. I can see the scientific potential and use for mummies and transferring that information to scholars and the general public. There is even a National Geographic TV special about the Wade-Brier mummy that is super interesting, and recently incorporated into the IMAX movie "Mummies: Secrets of the Pharaohs" (why do people think "mummies" and "pharaohs" have secrets??) But does that mummy, that person (remember, it was a person at one time) need to be on display at the Museum of Man for people to gawk at?


Mummy Expert: Death Tells About Living
Originally published in CNN.com
Monday, 26 Oct 2009, 10:49 PM EDT
By Val Willingham, CNN Medical Producer

BALTIMORE, Maryland (CNN) - Throughout his life, Ronn Wade has been surrounded by death. And in most cases, it hasn't seemed to bother him. "Death can tell us a lot about living," he says. The son of a mortician from Laurel, Maryland, Wade has always been fascinated with the human anatomy. Intrigued by his father's medical books as a boy, he learned about the superior vena cava, the palmar plexus and the adductor tubercle early in life. Wade even mummified a dead rat for his ninth-grade science project. "Preserving the body was interesting to me." he says.

After a stint in Vietnam as an Air Force medic, Wade arrived at the University of Maryland School of Medicine as the director of the anatomical services division. One of Wade's responsibilities is to provide cadaver donors to local hospitals and medical institutions for surgical training. But perhaps more intriguing, Wade's department also oversees a collection of 200 medical mummies, called the Burns Collection. Assembled in Scotland in the early 1800s by Allen Burns, an expert dissector, the mummies were used as teaching tools; eventually they were brought to Maryland and bought by the university.

The collection of mummies was well preserved, Wade discovered. "They were embalmed -- the fluids had things like mercury and arsenic -- and then they were salt- and sugar-cured to be preserved," he says. And they were illegal. "This is at a time when there was no such thing as donations, and dissection of a body was strictly illegal," he says. "So many of them were taken from graves." Wade calls the collection fascinating and says we can learn a lot from mummies in general. "They were exposed to a lot of things we are today -- like bacteria, disease," he notes. "We can see signs of osteoarthritis, stress, even hardening of the arteries."

When you hear the word "mummy," you might think of the ancient Egyptians who preserved their rulers by drying out their bodies and wrapping them in bandages treated with special chemicals. They mummified bodies to protect them against decay. And, although we usually think of a mummy as a human being, animals -- and even plants -- can be mummified. Although the ancient Egyptians were well-known for their mummification practices, other cultures also used special embalming procedures to preserve their dead. Some of the best-kept mummies date back more than 500 years from the Inca civilization, which stretched from Peru to Chile.

Weather can also create mummified bodies. In 1972, eight mummies were discovered in Greenland where they were naturally preserved by the freezing temperatures. Those bodies were hundreds of years old. And peat bogs have been known to preserve bodies; many mummified remains have been found in peat bogs across Northern Europe, some dating back thousands of years. Today, many scientists are using these mummies to learn how our bodies work. "You can see anatomy, you can see pathology, you can see if there has been surgery, like a bypass," says Wade.

Another modern-day use of mummies is genetic research. In Bolzano, Italy, the EURAC-Institute for Mummies and the Iceman was recently created to investigate ancient DNA in mummies as well as the famous Iceman, found in the Alps in 1991. The Iceman's body, known as "Ötzi," dates back more than 5,300 years and is the oldest "wet" mummy -- in which the tissue is actually preserved with fat and some water -- ever found. By using high-tech imaging equipment, scientists hope to examine the body to better understand not only the aging process but also how man has evolved.

In 1994, Wade and Bob Brier, a professor of philosophy and Egyptology at Long Island University, took a human body that had been willed to science and mummified it following the ancient procedures of mummification outlined in ancient Egyptian lore. For weeks, the scientists painstakingly removed the organs from the donor, wrapped the body in bandages treated with "chemicals" the ancient Egyptians would have used, and recorded the process. "We didn't have a book to go by, no manual. It all had to be researched," Wade says. "And it had to be the way the Egyptians would have done it."

"Our goal was to have a control mummy to use to compare to other preserved bodies, to see what changes take place over time," says Wade.

Now on exhibit at the San Diego Museum of Man, the Wade-Brier mummy is still being mined for data. "It's ongoing research; we still take cultures and biopsies from the mummy," says Wade. In fact, many scientists can look at the mummy and compare it with those they've found at archaeological sites.

Since making a mummy from scratch, Wade has been tinkering with other ways to preserve the body. Over the years, he's been working on a technique called "plastination" that replaces the water and fat inside a body's tissues with polymers -- sticky, hard-drying plastics. Through this process, three-dimensional specimens can be preserved for teaching and research. They can be held, cross-sectioned,even dissected for use as "hands-on" teaching tools.

"The whole idea is to enhance the learning process," says Wade. "Anatomy is not just dissecting bodies. Yes, it's a large part of what we do, but we can also help students enhance their studies, and assist clinical staff to develop skills and expertise, all for the sake of the patient.

26 October 2009

Ancient artifacts as political pawns

There was a wonderful, short op-ed piece (of sorts) by Michael Kimmelman in the New York Times last week discussing the newly reopened Neues Museum in Berlin and the rekindling of controversy surrounding the famous bust of Nefertiti (pictured) now on display at said museum. Egypt's chief archaeologist and media whore, Zahi Hawass, is demanding once again the bust be returned to Egypt immediately, unless Germany can prove the artifact was removed from Egypt legally almost a century ago.

This type of cultural parlay is nothing new these days. Egypt, Italy and Greece among others have all been clambering for the return of "their" national treasures. To what end, you might ask? As Kimmelman playfully states, art in this case has become a political football or "politics by proxy," masking other, more sinister cultural relations gone awry in the form of racism, perceived Zionist tendencies, and general power struggles.

One of Kimmelman's points is perhaps a very valid one, that "all patrimony arguments ultimately live or die in the morally murky realm of global relations, meaning that modern governments like Egypt’s and Iraq’s may win sympathy today by counting on Western guilt about colonialism." But he also counters with an evocative observation regarding the primary countries immersed in this object struggle. Germany is not demanding the return of objects taken by Russia after the war, nor is Sweden offering up their spoils from a war with Denmark fought 350 years ago. 

Could it be that Middle Eastern and eastern Mediterranean countries feel their only sense of national pride or economic stability derives from antiquities and/or their ancient histories? What a sad thought indeed.   

Istanbul hamam up for sale

If I had a spare $3M sitting around, you can best believe I would be buying this. Or feeding the world's hungry. One of those two. I will say though, that my best hamam experience is still my first one in Konya. Go figure! Perhaps the most religiously conservative town in Turkey and I get the best practically naked bath/massage.

Make sure when you do eventually visit Turkey and do a hamam (which you absolutely should), do not..I repeat DO NOT go to the super-touristy hamams that are co-ed and people are wearing bathing suits. I can't make this up. I have seen the brochures!

Istanbul's Baths Make a Comeback

By Jonathan Head
BBC News, Istanbul

For many of the seven million tourists who come to Istanbul every year, a trip to a hamam, or traditional Turkish bath, is a highlight of their visit - an authentic Ottoman-era experience. Dressed only in a skimpy cotton wrap and noisy wooden sandals, you sit in a drippingly humid steam room, under a perforated stone dome from which shafts of light stream down. You are then led by beefy tellaks, traditional masseurs, to a heated marble slab in the middle of the chamber, and vigorously scrubbed and slapped around, before dousing yourself in cool water from the old brass taps set in the walls.

Perhaps borrowing some ideas from the bathing habits of the city's original Roman inhabitants, the Ottoman conquerors of Istanbul built some 150 hamams there between the 16th and 18th Centuries, and many more in other cities. Some of the finest were built by Sinan, the most renowned architect of the Ottoman era. For wealthy women of the period a trip to the hamam was part of the daily routine; they would spend hours there relaxing, chatting, and being groomed by their servants.

But over the past century the habit has died, and most of the original Ottoman hamams have fallen into disuse: some demolished, others converted into bars or store rooms. Of the 48 hamams believed to have been built by Sinan, just a handful survive, some of them in ruins.

"There is a lot more interest in preserving our historical heritage now, and it is not restricted to more spectacular buildings like mosques. Hamams, and even Ottoman-era factories, are being renovated"
-Historian Nina Ergin

Only a few, like those in tourist areas - such as Cemberlitas, near the Spice Bazaar, and Cagaloglu, a stone's throw from Hagia Sofia and the Blue Mosque - have continued to thrive. Cemberlitas was built by Sinan in 1584, as a commission from the wife of the Sultan. Cagaloglu was built in a spectacular neo-baroque style in 1741. A water crisis later in the 18th Century forced the Sultan to ban all further hamam construction. 

"Most hamams were built to help fund the big foundations that were a feature of the Ottoma era," says historian Nina Ergin. "They were rented out to fund mosques, hospitals and soup kitchens. But at the end of the 19th Century many of those foundations ran into financial difficulties, and offered rental periods of 200 to 300 years. That's how so many hamams have ended up in private hands."

But in recent years there has been something of an Ottoman revival among people living in Istanbul, and with it renewed interest in classic hamams. Cemberlitas was substantially renovated in the 1980s; Cagaloglu is now on the market for $16m (£9.77m). The growth of the spa industry around the world has also inspired some entrepreneurs to build new hamams, in shopping malls, hotels and health centres.

"It is very positive", says Ms Ergin. "There is a lot more interest in preserving our historical heritage now, and it is not restricted to more spectacular buildings like mosques. Hamams, and even Ottoman-era factories, are being renovated."

If you happen to have a spare $3m, plus perhaps the same again for restoration, you could buy yourself an authentic Sinan hamam, situated in the historic district of Aya Kapi close to the southern shore of the Golden Horn. It is little more than a pile of stones now; trees have taken root in its crumbling dome, and inside it is being used to store timber.

Estate agent Okan Aksudogan took me up a rickety ladder to see the magnificent brick structure inside the dome. He believes that for the right kind of investor, at $3m the hamam is a bargain. "He could probably get his money back, after renovation, in 10 to 15 years," he says. "But the asked price is maybe not the true value, it is just the value put on the business. But what you buy is something unique."

Planning regulations for historic buildings like this are very strict these days. Nina Ergin says that makes it difficult to find investors willing to put in the time and money needed to restore them. But Mr Aksudogan hopes that either a cultural foundation, or a wealthy individual with a love of classical Ottoman architecture, can be persuaded to bring the Aya Kapi hamam back to its former glory.

17 October 2009

Genesis illustrated and Iraqi looting

Wow, so much news has been piling up! I should really try to get on here more often, but the weather has been so nice, I rather be outside. I am sure you understand!

In the meantime, researchers from USC have been helping create hi-res digital images of ancient Aramaic texts inked onto clay tablets. A sacred lake was uncovered at the ancient Pharaonic city of Tanis in Egypt (no, the "Well of the Souls" has yet to be found). Archaeologists in Israel were surprised to find the foot and sandal prints from the artists who created a mosaic 1,700 years ago at Lod. And in Izmir, Turkey, a temple dedicated to the Greek goddess of divine retribution, Nemesis, has once again seen the light of day after thousands of years.

In other news, the oldest copy of the 10 Commandments (early 1st century BC) is now on display in Toronto. Also from Toronto, an update on the cache of cuneiform tablets found this past summer at Tell Tayinat in Turkey. It is too lengthy to go into the great importance of this find here, but in short the tablets were found inside a Neo-Hittite temple that had been renovated by the Neo-Assyrians during the Iron Age (roughly 1200-600 BCE) and will likely shed light on the imperial ambitions of this infamous Empire. Cool stuff!

Daring to visualize the impossible to comprehend in pictures (that is my opinion anyway), there is also a graphic-novel style book out now of the Book of Genesis. Along the same lines, Prof. Ellen van Wolde claims that God is not the Creator, but instead scholars have been translating the first line of Genesis incorrectly for years. According to her, God, in fact, only 'separated' the Heavens and Earth, but did create man and animals. Who created Heaven and Earth then? Like most academics/media whores these days, she only wants to "shake things up" and make headlines but not provide answers.

A final bit of news deals with looting. An op-ed piece in the New York Times about this subject comes on the heels of this report (with various translations from the Arabic) that Nouri Kamil al-Maliki, the brother-in-law on the Prime Minister of Iraq, was detained at Dhubai Airport because he was caught with Sumerian antiquities that he was trying to smuggle to the United States. The author of the piece, Roger Atwood, suggests that grassroots movements involving community members to self-police archaeological sites (like they do in Peru, he gives as an example) is a way to curb the looting of sites in Iraq. Though Atwood is wise to note that financing needs to come from somewhere because, let's face it, people who are starving and unemployed are not going to do this for free. What he fails to consider is whether or not community members feel it is worth their life.

Many of these looters and looting gangs are heavily armed and likely not afraid to spend some bullets to keep you out of their way as they rip ancient artifacts from the ground to feed the hunger of antiquities collectors (I am looking at you USA, Europe and Japan). I am sure many people will not think it is worth it. I felt the same way when I toyed with the idea of joining the FBI to hunt down antiquities thieves. In the end, I decided my life and the well-being of my family was more important than busting down the door, drawing my gun and demanding the return of a painting. Sure, that painting might be one-of-a-kind, but so am I.

03 October 2009

Lucy's got nothin' on Ardi

New hominid found that predates "Lucy" by over 1 million years! Ardipithecus ramidus (or "Ardi" because scientists love making cutesy names when they can) was uncovered in Ethiopia and presented to the world by paleoanthropologists from UC Berkeley yesterday. She is not the "missing link" but actually represents an important step in understanding human evolution. This conclusion, as quoted from an article in the upcoming volume of Science, is that:

"Humans did not evolve from chimpanzees but rather through a series of progenitors starting from a distant common ancestor that once occupied the ancient forests of the African Micoene."

What does that mean? Instead of a direct link in evolution between humans and chimps, we actually share a single common ancestor from which the evolution of humans and chimps branched off of. Check out the vid:

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