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Art & Artifacts


Modern tools characterize corpses and sequence sacred texts

by Alexandra A. Taylor
June 28, 2020 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 98, Issue 25


Mummy postmortem

A cartoon of a mummy with its hands in the air.
Credit: Shutterstock
Under wraps: EVA sampling leaves artifacts intact, or as intact as a 4,000-year-old corpse ever is, anyway.

Getting an up close look at the chemical makeup of an ancient artifact generally requires researchers to destroy a bit of it in the process. But Beatrice Demarchi, a molecular archaeologist at the University of Turin, thought a new tactic was in order for a rare specimen known as “the young woman with the pleated dress.” It’s one of the few mummies from Egypt’s Old Kingdom (ca. 2649–2130 BCE) still in existence.

Demarchi teamed up with Pier Giorgio Righetti, professor emeritus of chemistry at the Politecnico di Milano, and Gleb Zilberstein, CEO of the sensor company Spectrophon, to extract proteins from the mummy using a noninvasive protein-harvesting technique. An ethylene vinyl acetate (EVA) film studded with charged plastic beads attracts proteins from an object’s surface without significantly altering it in the process (J. Archaeol. Sci. 2020, DOI: 10.1016/j.jas.2020.105145).

Demarchi looked at the proteins’ patterns of degradation to suss out which belonged to the mummy and which were the result of modern contamination. She’d hoped to identify pathogens or signs of an immunity response that might point to a cause of death but found none in these particular samples. However, there was evidence of modern fungi and bacteria, an important detail for conservators hoping to stop degradation.

Demarchi plans to use the EVA technique to keep hunting for clues in other mummies, such as protein-based embalming substances that might illuminate ancient burial practices. Legend tells of a curse on those who disturb mummies, but Newscripts is betting she’s safe given that the technique is noninvasive.


Hide and go sequence

A photo of one of the Dead Sea Scrolls, written on animal hide.
Credit: ChameleonsEye/
Infinite scroll: These texts survived in caves for thousands of years before they were discovered in the 1940s and ’50s.

What’s a mummy’s favorite reading material? The Dead Sea Scrolls, perhaps? If so, it would have that in common with Biblical scholar Noam Mizrahi, who found himself seated next to molecular biologist Oded Rechavi on the bus to a retreat for new faculty put on by Tel Aviv University. The professors hit it off and decided to collaborate on a multidisciplinary project to sequence the animal hides that served as parchment for many of the sacred scrolls (Cell 2020, DOI: 10.1016/j.cell.2020.04.046).

The pair spent close to 2 years convincing the Israel Antiquities Authority to let them collect DNA samples from the scrolls. Their work had precedent: researchers had sequenced some scrolls in the 1990s in an attempt to identify the source of the hides. But Mizrahi and Rechavi’s team used modern techniques to add a new dimension to scroll scholarship.

They had their work cut out for them. The original process of turning animal hide into parchment had destroyed a lot of DNA. The scrolls then sat in the caves at Qumran for millennia, exposed to all manner of biological contamination. And when modern researchers retrieved them, they handled them without gloves, suffused them with cigarette smoke, and—perhaps worst of all—bound them together with Scotch tape. “All that conspired together to make our life as difficult as one can imagine,” Mizrahi tells Newscripts.

Using a multidisciplinary approach, the team pieced together scroll fragments and classified them as having been either copied by the Essenes (the Jewish sect that is thought to have collected most of the scrolls) or brought from elsewhere. In a way, Rechavi says, their work raises more questions than it answers: “Imagine that Israel is burned down, and all that is left is one library of some extremists living in a cave. What would that tell us about what’s happened in Tel Aviv? In Jerusalem? Is it representative, or not?”

Mizrahi and Rechavi hope to expand the scope of the texts they are sampling. They think the antiquities authority has warmed up to their work, meaning there’s one less layer of tape they need to worry about.

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