Berkeley Lab researchers study Egyptian mummy bones, soil

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Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory researchers studied mummy bones and Egyptian soil to gain a deeper understanding of the daily life and environmental circumstances of Egypt thousands of years ago using X-ray and infrared light techniques.

Cairo University associate professor Ahmed El-Hussein Elnewishy and postdoctoral researcher Mohamed Kasem worked with Berkeley Lab researchers to examine the bones, which date back 4,000 years. Hans Bechtel, a researcher with Berkeley Lab’s Advanced Light Source, or ALS, said researchers used the light source to find different molecules in the bones. According to Eric Schaible, a researcher in ALS, they also used the light source to look at the structure of the bones.

In the study, 32 bones were examined and came from two Egyptian sites: the ancient burial ground of Saqqara and what is now known as Aswan, a city on the Nile.

“(The results) can give us the health issues and behavior of past civilizations,” Elnewishy said. “And give us more insight into their lives.”

Schaible described the equipment in the lab as “a big lightbulb for X-rays” that radiates intense X-rays. Schaible noted that this lab is versatile and can be used for many different kinds of science, which makes the lab a “tremendously useful facility.”

Bechtel said not only can their technology analyze the molecules in the bones, but it can also distinguish whether a molecule came from the person’s diet and lifestyle or from being buried for years. Schaible gave the example of excess amounts of aluminum, and whether that is a result of the burial or a part of their lifestyle.

According to the press release, lead, aluminum and other elements can be indicators of the environment and the toxicity of that time.

At this time, however, no definite conclusions can be made, according to Elnewishy. Researchers are still in the process of analyzing the study. Schaible added that they need to look through a “substantial amount” of data before they can make any definite conclusions.

The researchers from Cairo University assisted in the study as a part of Lightsources for Africa, the Americas, Asia and Middle East project, or LAAAMP, which is a nonprofit that connects researchers from developing nations to facilities such as Berkeley Lab. According to Bechtel, labs such as ALS are “only a first world thing.”

“It is one of the most prestigious labs in the world,” Elnewishy said. “There is great support in the lab too.”

Schaible added that collaboration such as the kind LAAAMP promotes can teach researchers to develop labs in their home countries.

This collaboration not only gave Elnewishy the chance to work in a highly advanced lab, but it presented an opportunity for Berkeley researchers too. Bechtel said there is a “coolness factor” in studying mummy bones.

“It’s very exciting to be a part of this study,” Schaible said.

Contact Robson Swift at [email protected] and follow him on Twitter at @swift_robson.