The FBI and the mystery of the Egyptian mummy’s head

More than a century ago, in 1915, a group of archaeologists made an unusual discovery. While excavating a necropolis in Deir el-Bersha, Egypt, they observed a virtually secret tomb.

There, inside the burial chamber, was not a mummy: only part of it. The severed head from the body resting on a cedar coffin surprised the researchers, who soon started an investigation.

The mummy’s at least 4,000 years of existence have not always been of eternal rest. At some point, looters entered the place and took gold, jewelry, and almost everything of value that existed there.

They separated the head from the rest of the body found, weakening the ancient artifact, and, in addition, set fire to the tomb to end any trace of the crime they had committed.

What the researchers knew about the tomb is that it belonged to an ancient Egyptian governor, named Djehutynakht and his wife, who reportedly lived around 2,000 BC and administered a province in Upper Egypt.

This fact caused the team to be confused as to the identity of the discovered Egyptian mummy – was the mummy the leader himself, or perhaps his wife?

Credit: Disclosure / Boston Museum of Fine Arts

The story may be unusual, but even more bizarre is the mummified face. The painted eyebrows, the sober expression and the wavy hair that can be seen under the tattered bandages demonstrated one of the greatest mysteries to be revealed by archaeologists.

The head was taken to the Boston Museum of Fine Arts in 1921, and remained intriguing to researchers.

The two coffins and the countless wooden statues abandoned by the vandals were also taken for analysis in the United States.

According to Marleen De Meyer, assistant director of archeology at the Dutch-Flemish Institute in Cairo, “the coffin is a masterpiece of art from the Middle Kingdom”, which has “some items of a rare kind of realism”.

Still, the mystery of who that skull really was – of Djehutynakht or his wife. “The head was found on the governor’s coffin, but she was never sure if it belonged to him or her,” explained Rita Freed, one of the curators at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts.

It was only in 2009 that the pieces of the necropolis were exposed to the public, and it was also the first time that they thought about what to do to end the unknown.

According to Freed, that year, they did an investigation on the artifact and concluded that only a DNA test could reveal the genus of the Egyptian mummy to, in short, define who it really belonged to.

However, there was an even greater difficulty. “The problem was that at that time, in 2009, there was never a successful DNA extraction from a 4,000-year-old mummy,” said the curator.

At that point, to try to solve the case at last, the museum asked the US FBI police unit for help. The agency, however, had never worked with artifacts as old as this one, but still accepted the challenge.

“Honestly, I didn’t expect this to work, because at that time, there was this certainty that it was not possible to obtain DNA from ancient Egyptian remains,” confessed FBI forensic expert Odile Loreille. But it worked.

To carry out the study, Freed, in partnership with Massachusetts General Hospital, defined that the best way to discover the genus of the Egyptian mummy would be through the extraction of a molar.

By analyzing bones of the face and jaw joint, researchers could determine the sex of the mummy.

Molecular biologist Fabio Nunes, from Massachusetts General Hospital, was responsible for removing the mummy’s tooth. “My biggest concern was: ‘Don’t drop it, don’t drop it, don’t drop it,’” he said after the experiment, already relieved.

After that, already in 2016, a molar crown was sent to Odile, the forensic at the FBI laboratory in Quantico, Virginia. It was there that the FBI took action to define the identity of the mummy.

After a DNA analysis, the specialist analyzed the amount of chromosomes contained in the tooth. “When DNA is female, there are more X chromosome records.

When it is male, there are X and Y,” explained Odile. And the conclusion was this: it was masculine – that is, the head belonged to Djehutynakht.

“It’s almost like during pregnancy, when you find out the sex of the baby. It’s a boy! ”Said Nunes. Freed further claimed that, as they had discovered that the governor himself was there, they would change the identification tag, which could finally be put on display.

Credit: Wikimedia Commons
Credit: Disclosure / Boston Museum of Fine Arts

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