Morbid Mementos: Memories of Egypt

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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.”

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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.

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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.

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Death, Dissection and Delight: The University of Dundee and CAHID

Photograph by Maja Daniels; Getty Images. via Financial Times Magazine, www.ft.com

Photograph by Maja Daniels; Getty Images via Financial Times Magazine. Read the full article

Yesterday the Financial Times published an article about the Centre for Anatomy and Human Identification at the University of Dundee.

Established in 2008, a year after I left the Dundee anatomy lab behind, CAHID is now a world leading centre in human identification, lending its expertise to global natural disasters, criminal identification and facial reconstruction. Police and forensic teams now travel from around the globe to receive training and guidance from Professor Sue Black and her expert team who have recently been awarded the prestigious Queens Anniversary Prize for their ground breaking work.

The facial reconstruction of King Richard III. Photography by Dan Kitwood, Getty Images via National Geographic News

The facial reconstruction of King Richard III. Photography by Dan Kitwood, Getty Images via National Geographic News

Perhaps most famously, CAHID were responsible for the impressive reconstruction of the face of Richard III whose skeleton was found under a car park in Leicester during an archaeological dig in 2013. One of the most enjoyable modules of my degree was Biological Identity which was taught by Prof Caroline Wilkinson who is now professor of craniofacial identification at the centre. In an article by BBC News she commented on the project: “It was a great privilege to be able to analyse a skull thought to be Richard III. The facial reconstruction was produced on the assumption that the remains were unknown and portraits of Richard III were not used as reference.”

A comparison between traditional formalin embalming (left) and the more realistic Thiel technique (right)

A comparison between traditional formalin embalming (left) and the more realistic Thiel technique (right) Original photographs via bbc.co.uk

But CAHID are now breaking ground in different ways. Some of you may be aware of the Thiel embalming process; a technique pioneered in Austria that produces life-like cadavers for medical study, improving surgical training with undeniable real-life textures which simply cannot be achieved with the rubbery, lifeless results of traditional embalming with formalin. Now receiving approximately 75 body donations per year (some 40 more than when I started there in 2003),  Prof Sue Black’s  ‘Million for a Morgue’ project has resulted in brand new state-of-the-art Thiel embalming facilities which happen to be the only of their kind in the UK.

A plastinated hand, from the University of Otago featured in the New Zealand Medical Journal

A plastinated hand, from the University of Otago featured in the New Zealand Medical Journal

When, as a school pupil at the young age of 17, I visited the anatomy department at the University of Dundee for the first time, I knew I had discovered a life-changing place. On that day in 2002 I met one of the “three men all over 60” who managed the department as mentioned by Prof Black, Dr Christie. By then I knew that I wanted to study anatomy, the question was where. The leading university in the country for its degree, Dundee was always going to be tough to beat, but after visiting the department at the University of Glasgow during their post-application open day, I needed more than their ‘what is anatomy?’ poster on the wall to impress me. Dr Christie was a gentle, older gentleman who was smartly dressed and whose softly spoken voice welcomed you into the small anatomical museum in the Medical Sciences Institute. (Little did I know at the time that the dissection room was just the other side of those specimen-lined walls.) The small group of parents and their ambitious but apprehensive teenagers listened keenly to Dr Christie’s description of the course and the department’s facilities, fighting the temptation to be distracted completely by the specimens, models and bones that decorated the modest room. From nowhere, like a magician, he produced a brain and a hand, cut off just above the wrist; to say I sat up in my seat would be an understatement. As the specimens were passed around the room (we were getting to hold real body parts! But we had no gloves…) Dr Christie told us the background of the prosections which had been painstakingly dissected and in fact plastinated by none other than Gunther von Hagens, years before he was known to the public for his ghoulish exhibitions and televised human dissections. Well, that was it. It seems dramatic to say I’d fallen in love, but I thought about that little room, the jars that lined the walls, von Hagens’ specimens and Dr Christie’s gentle pronunciation of the word ‘dissected’ constantly until I walked through the doors again as a first year Anatomical Sciences student over a year later in 2003.

And of the other “three men all over 60”? One would turn out to be my true inspiration and an uncle away from home….

 

Read the FT article and interview with Prof Sue Black here
Read more about undergraduate, postgraduate and short courses run by CAHID here.