Researchers have discovered a tool used by ancient Egyptian embalmers within the skull of a mummy.
removal of the brain was a common step in ancient Egyptian
mummification techniques however it is rare for the embalmers to have
left a tool such as this behind after the procedure was completed. The
tool was discovered through the use of CT scans designed to examine the
interior of the resin-filled brain cavity. An endoscope was then used to
take a closer look.
"We cut it with a clamp through the
endoscope and then removed it from the skull," said lead researcher Dr.
Mislav Cavka. "It almost definitely would have been used in
excerebration [brain removal] of the mummy."
A brain-removal tool used by ancient Egyptian embalmers has been
discovered lodged in the skull of a female mummy that dates back around
Removal of the brain was an Egyptian mummification procedure that became popular around 3,500 years ago and remained in use in later periods.
Identifying the ancient tools embalmers used for brain removal is difficult, and researchers note this is only the second time that such a tool has been reported within a mummy's skull.
Located between the left parietal bone and the back of the skull, which
had been filled with resin, the object was discovered in 2008 through a
series of CT scans. Researchers then inserted an endoscope (a thin tube
often used for noninvasive medical procedures) into the mummy to get a
closer look and ultimately detach it from resin to which it had gotten
stuck. [See Photos of Mummy & Brain-Removal Tool]
"We cut it with a clamp through the endoscope and then removed it from
the skull," said lead researcher Dr. Mislav Čavka, of the University
Hospital Dubrava in Zagreb Croatia, in an interview with LiveScience.
They found themselves peering at an object more than 3 inches (8
centimeters) long that would have been used for liquefying and removing
the brain. "It almost definitely would have been used in excerebration
[brain removal] of the mummy," Čavka said.
The instrument would have been inserted through a hole punched into the
ethmoid bone near the nose. "Some parts [of the brain] would be wrapped
around this stick and pulled out, and the other parts would be
liquefied," Čavka said.
The Egyptian mummy
could then be put on its abdomen and the liquid drained through the
nose hole. "It is an error that [the] embalmers left this stick in the
skull," said Čavka, adding the tool may have broken apart during the
This embalming accident, unfortunate for the ancient mummy,
has provided researchers with a very rare artifact. Čavka's team point
out in a paper they published recently in the journal RSNA RadioGraphics
the only other brain-removal stick found inside a mummy's skull dates
back 2,200 years.
"Probably in museums in Egypt there are many other evidences, but they
were not found inside the skull," making it tricky to identify such
artifacts as brain-removal tools, said Čavka.
The mummy is currently in the Archaeological Museum in Zagreb Croatia
and is that of a woman who died around the age of 40. Brought to Croatia
in the 19th century without a coffin, it's not known where she was
found in Egypt. Radiocarbon dating and CT scans of the mummy determined its date to be around 2,400 years. Her cause of death is unknown.
The stick is quite brittle and the team could not do as thorough of an
analysis as they'd hoped. Looking at it under a microscope, botanical
experts determined the tool is made from plants in the group
Monocotyledon, which includes forms of palm and bamboo.
The most curious find came when the researchers compared their discovery with an ancient account of brain removal made by the Greek writer Herodotus
in the fifth century B.C. A visitor to Egypt, he had this to say about
how Egyptian brain removal worked (as translated by A. D. Godley,
Cambridge, Harvard University Press, 1920, through Perseus Digital
"Having agreed on a price, the bearers go away, and the workmen, left
alone in their place, embalm the body. If they do this in the most
perfect way, they first draw out part of the brain through the nostrils
with an iron hook, and inject certain drugs into the rest."
The recent discovery suggests an organic stick, not an "iron hook," was
used in at least some of these procedures, possibly for economic
reasons. Researchers note that the tool found in the skull of the other
mummy, dating from 2,200 years ago, was also made of an organic
"It is known that mummification was widely practiced throughout ancient
Egyptian civilization, but it was a time-consuming and costly practice.
Thus, not everyone could afford to perform the same mummification
procedure," write the researchers in their journal article.