Woman's donated leg mummified using ancient Egyptian practice

Using two legs from a cadaver, researchers in Switzerland baked one in an oven and covered the other in a salt solution to try to re-create ancient mummification. One method was successful.

Michael Franco
Freelancer Michael Franco writes about the serious and silly sides of science and technology for CNET and other pixel and paper pubs. He's kept his fingers on the keyboard while owning a B&B in Amish country, managing an eco-resort in the Caribbean, sweating in Singapore, and rehydrating (with beer, of course) in Prague. E-mail Michael.
Michael Franco
3 min read

A mummy at the British Museum in London. Enterprising Swiss researchers have obtained direct evidence of how the mummification process was carried out. Klafubra/Wikimedia Commons

Though using ancient methods to turn a 21st-century woman's leg into the leg of a mummy might sound like a scene from " The X-Files," the project was actually carried out by scientists in a lab at the University of Zurich in Switzerland. The results of their experiment were published last week in The Anatomical Record.

If you're like me, on hearing this news, two questions naturally come to mind: why and how.

First for the "why" part.

Christina Papageorgopoulou, a physical anthropologist at the Democritus University of Thrace in Greece, who worked on the experiment, told Live Science that the researchers simply wanted to have an "evidence-based methodology" for seeing what ancient mummification processes looked like. "The only way you can do this is by [doing] the experiment yourself," she said.

OK, so they kind of did it because they could. And for the "how?"

First, the researchers got ahold of two legs that were removed from a recently deceased woman who had donated her body to science. The legs were amputated within 24 hours of her death. The scientists chose to work with legs only because using the whole body would have been too complicated. "If we used the whole body, we would have had to cut it up and take out the intestines [and other organs]," Papageorgopoulou told Live Science.

Next, they baked one leg in an oven kept at 40 degrees Celsius (104 degrees Fahrenheit) with a humidity level of 10 percent to 20 percent to try to mimic the hot and dry conditions of Egypt. But, after seven days, that process was abandoned "due to unexpected lack of mummification progress" according to the research.

The other leg was placed in a substance called natron which is just what ancient Egyptians would have used to prevent bodies from rotting before entombment. It consists of of sodium carbonate (soda ash) and sodium bicarbonate -- both salts.

The salt-covered leg was placed under a ventilation hood and monitored for 208 days. During that time, tissue samples were taken a total of 18 different times and examined using a variety of scientific methods including microscopy and MRI and CAT scans.

So how did it work?

This is how you make a mummy. The numbers indicate the number of days the leg had undergone the mummification process. Christina Papageorgopoulou, et al

After the 208 days, the researchers reported, the mummification process was a success, with good preservation of skin and muscle tissue thanks to the removal of water by the salts. There was also a noted lack of bacterial or fungal growth on the limb, the presence of which could have led to decay.

Interestingly, the researchers did find a strain of Enterococcus bacteria present called E. cecorum, which is found in poultry intestines. It has only ever presented clinically four times. They posit that the bacteria was present before the experiment began, as the lab where it was carried out was kept sterile.

"The origin of E. Cecorum in the LL (lower limb) is unclear," the research states. "The most probable cause is the contamination of the donor before the experiment with fatal consequences for her. However, since the data of the donor program at the University of Zurich are confidential, further clarification is not possible."

Though the mummification process was a success, source materials regarding embalming in ancient Egypt -- penned by Herodotus in the 5th century BC -- show that the Swiss researchers' project took a little longer. Herodotus reports mummification happening in just 70 days, versus 208. The researchers chalk this up to the cooler, moister condition of the lab in Zurich versus conditions that would be found in Egypt.

"We were not so quick like the ancient Egyptians," Papageorgopoulou told Live Science. But about the experiment she added, "It's more or less state-of-the-art documentation on how the ancient Egyptians mummified their bodies."