Thursday, March 29, 2012

New Technologies and the Study of Mummies

What kinds of technological advances can be used to improve the study of mummies such as those from the Inca Empire? How do those advances contribute to research?

Radiocarbon dating is one important process that researchers use to date finds of unknown age, including human remains. This process, as described by Reinhard (2005), makes use of carbon 14, which is found in living things and decays constantly over time. Every 5,560 years (a ‘half-life’), half of the carbon 14 present decays into nitrogen 14. Scientists can then compare levels of carbon 14 to expected atmospheric levels in order to determine an approximate age, going as far back as 45,000 to 50,000 years ago (American Chemical Society, 2010). Reinhard discusses this procedure in the context of his work with the Ice Maiden, one of the most famous of the Capacocha mummies. Dr. Irv Taylor used carbon dating of the Ice Maiden’s hair to determine that she lived approximately 530 years ago (Reinhard, 2005). In the context of his work, such a date is important to Reinhard because it helps to determine with greater accuracy when the sacrifice occurred, which he concludes may have not been long after Inca conquest of the region. Dating techniques, used in this way, could continue to provide greater insight regarding the timeline of Inca conquest and the relation of the sacrifices to those conquests, especially with regards to the arrival of the Spanish.

The technology for radiocarbon dating is not a particularly new advance; however, researchers continue to make progress in improving its effectiveness and usefulness as a tool of study. An American Chemical Society press release from 2010 discusses a new method in which an object is placed inside a special chamber with plasma, which produces carbon dioxide from used for C-14 analysis. Older methods involve taking a sample of the object to be analyzed. While the samples can be small, even slight samples can have negative consequences on delicate objects or objects with particular ethical and legal responsibilities associated, such as human remains (American Chemical Society, 2010). The benefit of this new method is that it eliminates the need for taking samples. Richardin, Gandolfo, Carminati, and Walter (2011) outline a new method for eliminating contaminating traces of carbon from hair samples taken from mummies (p. 380). This is especially important because, as they mention, while the analysis of bones using sampling methods has been advanced to the point of becoming generally reliable, in the case of mummies, preservation concerns limit such analysis (p. 379). Instead of risking damage to the remains, researchers have looked at increasing the accuracy of less destructive methods. In such ways, while the essence of radiocarbon dating is not new to archaeology or to the study of human remains, continued advances in this area may aid future researchers in studying those remains in a manner that avoids the ethical, legal, and conservational consequences of more destructive methods.

CT scans, otherwise known as computed axial tomography, was once a scan used for medical purposes. However, this medical technology has proven to be useful in the study of mummies. According to The American Heritage® Stedman's Medical Dictionary definition, a CT scan is “tomography used in diagnostic studies of internal bodily structures, in which computer analysis of a series of cross-sectional scans made along a single axis of a bodily structure or tissue is used to construct a three dimensional image of that structure”. However, archaeologists have been able to apply this technology to studying mummies as well. In fact, by applying this technology to ancient Egyptian mummies, archaeologists were able to find the oldest case of arterial disease known to science (Miyamoto, 2011). Another use for CT scan technology in researching mummies is to see how mummification happens. According to Luna, puncture holes, incisions, and other surgical modification can be revealed by CT scans to determine how mummification happens (Luna, 2007). This new technology could also be applied to mummies worldwide, and could provide insight when comparing mummification methods across the world.

Deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA), which is found within living cells and contains an collection of genetic information, gives scientists leads to endless amounts of information (Andes expedition, 1997). Joe Watkins in his article, Becoming American or becoming Indian, explains genetic analysis of DNA is one of the ways that modern technology has helped researchers identify biological affinity of human remains from the past (p. 75). According to Keith McKenney of the Institute for Genomic Research (TIGR), the case of the Ice Maiden of Ampato, which was found southern Peru in 1995 by Johan Reinhard, reveals some of the best ancient DNA ever extracted. Scientists from TIGR extracted DNA from a ten-milligram sample of the ice maiden’s heart, and studied the mitochondrial DNA, which provides information about genetic origins (Andes expedition, 1997). After an extensive examination, scientists were able to determine the Ice Maiden as being related to Native Americans, but explain that her DNA sequence could not be matched within the database (Andes expedition, 1997). Because DNA is so extensive, our technology and databases are limited to the amount of information that we can take from certain ancient samples. In the future we should expect to see DNA technology significantly increase.

To see more applications of this technology:

The video Egyptian mummy CT scan video, Smithsonian’s Natural Museum of Natural History shows a series of images of an Egyptian mummy produced by using CT scans:

The video Explorer: Tech- Smart Mummies? shows investigation into mummies found in China, including the difficulties of the scientists to find a sample to be used for DNA testing:

Works Cited
Andes expedition searching for Inca secrets. (1997). Retrieved March 29, 2012 from
American Chemical Society. (2010, March 23). New method could revolutionize dating of ancient
     treasures. Author. Retrieved March 29, 2012, from
computerized axial tomography. (n.d.). The American Heritage® Stedman's Medical 
     Dictionary. Retrieved March 28, 2012, from
Egyptian mummy CT scan video, Smithsonian’s Natural Museum of Natural History. (2011).       Smithsonian. Retrieved March 28, 2012 from
Explorer: Tech- Smart Mummies?. (2007). National Geographic. Retrieved March 28, 2012 from
Luna, K. (2007, August 29). Ct scans show how mummies were preserved. Quad-City Times
     Retrieved March 29, 2012 from
Miyamoto, M. (2011, April 15). Mummy in the machine. Retrieved March 29, 2012 from
Reinhard, J. (2005). The Ice Maiden: Inca Mummies, Mountain Gods, and Sacred Sites in the 
     Andes. Washington, D.C.: National Geographic Society.
Richardin, P., Gandolfo, N., Carminati, P., &Walter, P. (2011). A new protocol for radiocarbon 
     dating of hair and keratin type samples- application to an Andean mummy from the National 
     Museum of Natural History in Paris. Archaeology and Anthropological Sciences, 3(4), 
     379- 384.
Watkins, J. (2004). Becoming American or becoming Indian?. Journal of Social Archaeology, 
     4(1), 60- 80.

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