Morbid Mementos: Memories of Egypt


My mummified Egyptian in his sarcophagus

During a lovely, sunny break in Egypt this summer, I swore to myself I wouldn’t return home with typical, tacky, tourist tat. I failed. It’s just too easy to get carried away when shopping in Egypt. Initially wary of the market-place style haggling, it turned out to be one of the highlights of our holiday, spending some good times laughing and bantering with the local shop owners. It was on one of these occasions that I broke my tat-less promise. Shelves upon shelves of knick-knacks (including a lot of confusing penis-adorning Egyptian ornaments) I somehow managed to spot a gruesome gem. Imagine my deathly delight when I came across, not only a mummy’s sarcophagus, but one containing a creepy mummified corpse! The shopkeeper, clearly taken aback by my physical reaction to this morbid little mummy turned to my partner as asked, “She likes this kind of stuff?”. “Oh yeah,” he replied, “she loves the dead stuff!” Next came the customary ‘are you a bit weird?’ look that I’ve become accustomed to accept in such situations. The shopkeeper in a surprising ‘why didn’t you say so’ manner began to hunt high and low amongst the thousands upon thousands of goodness knows what that lined the shelves on the walls. “Here he is!” he exclaimed, “Anubis. The God of Death.”


Anubis tends to the mummification process

One of the most iconic of the Ancient Egyptian gods, Anubis was known as guardian and protector of the deceased, their mummification and their journey through the underworld.  A man with the head of a jackal, Anubis’ black appearance depicted death and fertility, representing rebirth and the afterlife. In the many statutes, artworks and archaeological finds in which he is depicted, he can be seen in various states of part jackal, part man but never as man in his entirety. Jackals and desert dogs would hunt at the edges of the Egyptian desert where the cemeteries and necropolis lay, like Anubis, watching over the dead.

A mask of Anubis worn by priests during the mummification process. (Courtesy of Harrogate Borough Council, Museums and Arts Service)

A mask of Anubis worn by priests during the mummification process. (Courtesy of Harrogate Borough Council, Museums and Arts Service)

The Ancient Egyptians were famously known for the careful mummification of their dead whom they preserved with sweet-smelling plants and herbs. Anubis was thought to use his heightened sense of smell to sniff each mummified body and only allow the purest on to paradise. He would watch over the process, ensuring that the priests, who were known to wear masks of Anubis, conducted the mummification process to the utmost accuracy.


Anubis weigh a heart on the Scales of Justice

Anubis guided the souls of the dead through the underworld, testing an individual’s commitment to the gods and weighing their heart on the Scales of Justice.  As Guardian of the Scales, Anubis would measure the weight of ones heart against the Feather of Ma’at which represented truth. If the heart was lighter than a feather, the deceased would be led into the underworld but if heavier, Anubis would feed the souls of sinners to Ammit the Destroyer; destructor of the souls of the corrupt and wicked.

So was my little Anubis worth taking home the tat for? According to the shopkeeper, I hope so; “Now you can have as much dead stuff as you want! Anubis will make you a mummy ever day. A hundred! You need him, he’ll always bring you dead stuff.” Sold. I’ll hold him to that.


Virtual Autopsy: The Decline of Forensic Dissection?

severed spineThe body of a 50-year-old man run over by a train. Via The Guardian

Gone are the days of forensic autopsy whereby the only means for determining cause of death were by cutting into the cadaver of the victim. Swiss researchers at the Institute of Forensic Medicine at the University of Zurich have developed a powerful and pioneering method of virtual imaging, never used in post mortem before; Virtopsy. Prof. Richard Dirnhofer initiated the Virtopsy project several years ago and now, along with operative head of the group Prof. Michael Thali, runs the applied research team which has been operating from the University in Switzerland since 2011.

Combining the uses of optical 3D surface scanning, 3D-photogrammetry, computed tomography (CT), and magnetic resonance (MR) imaging, virtual autopsy is a technique that could not be further from traditional methods of the historical figures of medicine. Virtopsy allows the indefinite storage of collected images and data from the subject which can be re-examined, replicated and distributed at any time, allowing greater accessibility other experts in the field across disciplines and indeed locations. These techniques can be used in living patients to avoid invasive procedures, but the ground breaking aspects of Dirnhofer and Thali’s work lies in the forensic mortuary. Biological tissues, their decomposition and sometimes lack of reliability cannot compete with the ‘snapshot’ evidence taken by these methods, allowing findings to be shared in legal and court cases in a much more modern and interactive way.

The technology allows for the preservation of the deceased in a digital form, escaping the destruction of tissues caused during investigation and decomposition and allows access to areas of a cadaver which may not always prove accessible or appropriate to dissection. For example, the distribution of gas throughout the body is not often observed by the naked eye in traditional autopsy, but with this new technique, gaseous pockets and bubbles can be located quite clearly. It is also of great benefit to forensic autopsy when determining injury from attack by weapons. Scrolling through the layered depths of the victim allows for calculation of weapon length in stab wounds much easier than by traditional methods.

Understandably, virtual autopsy is warmly welcomed by certain religious communities and the families of the deceased who favour this non-invasive method. For the relatives, it allows peace of mind for the dignity and state bodies of their loved ones who have in most circumstances already been through a traumatising and unsettling ordeal.

Given that a deal of technological retraining would be required by investigators if virtual autopsy was rolled out and became a more common means of exploration, would this modern day approach favour the younger generation of forensic professionals? Will virtual autopsies replace traditional forensic examination over time? It is a welcome addition complementary to current investigation, but should we rely completely on such detached methods? Can anything substitute real, hands on exploration of the human body, no matter how advanced the technology and results may be?

Further reading:

Dancing Skeletons: Characters of Cham Dance

Dancing Skeleton Facec.1919 Dancing Skeleton costume on display at the National Museum of Scotland, Edinburgh

This bank holiday weekend brought a meandering stroll through the inspiring National Museum of Scotland, Edinburgh. Located on Chamber Street, between South Bridge and the Grassmarket, the National Museum of Scotland is still one of my favourite places to visit after this 4th or 5th trip. There were some fascinating anatomy-related finds that I came across for the first time on Monday; one of which was the costume of the Dancing Skeleton. (Level 3, World Cultures, Performance And Lives)

Tibetan Cham Dance is a lively costumed dance associated with some sects of Buddhism, often performed at Buddhist festivals. With monks providing the accompanying music with traditional Tibetan instruments, the dances are considered a form of meditation and an offering to the gods.

Dancing Skeleton Fullc.1919 Dancing Skeleton costume on display at the National Museum of Scotland, Edinburgh

One character from the Cham Dance is the Citipati, or ‘Dancing Skeleton’. Cheerfully dressed, their costumes are made from cotton and are decorated to show the bones of the skeleton in bright and illustrative way.  Their somewhat intimidating eye-less skull mask is fashioned from papier-mâché and sheet tin, showcasing a crested headdress of smaller skulls. Despite their daunting presence, their intention is not to frighten but to remind and inspire the audience of the transience of human life and the fleeting presence of the organic body.