It took four people to pull a molar out of the 4,000-year-old Egyptian mummy head.
One to hold the head. One to hold a 3-D model of the skull. One to thread an endoscope and peer inside. And one to clamp the forceps and extract the sought-after tooth.
Inside the ancient molar was DNA of importance to both Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts and the FBI. It would come to reveal the identity of the mummy to the museum and prove to the government agency that a new method of testing could work with even the oldest DNA.
“It was a rather elaborate ballet of people to do this,” Paul Chapman, a neurosurgeon at Massachusetts General Hospital and professor at Harvard Medical School, said of the 2009 extraction. “There really wasn’t any DNA data for mummies of this age — this was about 2,000 BC. The mummy DNA that’s already been reported in the literature tends to be from much later mummies.”
Just this March, the results of this elaborate effort were reported in the scientific journal Genes. The mummy was male, according to the DNA test, and was likely Djehutynakht, a prominent Egyptian dignitary whose tomb overlooked the Nile Valley.
Stored at the time inside the MFA’s textile conservation area, the mummy head was covered with ancient wrappings, which could not be disturbed. The researchers knew they had one opportunity to extract a molar, with no room for error.
Chapman remembers a handful of doctors and researchers practicing the extraction on a model mummy head for several hours to get the location and motion just right.
The trouble was, the first molar would not budge. So the team delicately maneuvered to the other side of the jaw, where the second popped out almost immediately.
“In the textile research lab, I remember there was a woman conserving some Renaissance lace from a shoe the next table over as we were extracting the tooth from this mummy head,” said Rita Freed, the MFA’s John F. Cogan Jr. and Mary L. Cornille Chair of Art of the Ancient World.
More than a century ago, in 1915, a joint MFA-Harvard University team discovered the plundered tomb of Djehutynakht and his wife inside the necropolis of Deir el-Bersha, located about 155 miles south of Cairo. He was a local governor and landowner. In the tomb were items deemed necessary in the afterlife. On top of his coffin was a lone mummy head.
For 95 years, the collection of artifacts was stored, cataloged, and studied. Conservators spent years reconstructing the contents of the tomb, eventually putting the collection on exhibit in 2009. Much of it is now on display as part of the MFA’s Stanford and Norma Jean Calderwood Gallery of Middle Kingdom Funerary Arts.
The mummy head, however, remained something of a mystery. Did it belong to the governor or his wife? Experts say the head had been torn from its body by grave robbers. On his coffin, it stated that one of Djehutynakht’s explicit wishes was that he not be dismembered.
When the FBI forensic specialists reached out to the MFA, their goal was simple.
If an advanced method of genetic testing could work on an ancient mummy, it could work on some of the FBI’s more difficult criminal cases. They were looking for an especially demanding sample, and the mysterious mummy seemed to fit the bill.
“We didn’t necessarily need a mummy tooth or anything else,” said Tony Onorato, chief of the DNA Support Unit in the FBI Laboratory Division. “We needed challenging samples.”
Jodi Irwin, supervisory biologist with the DNA Support Unit in the FBI Laboratory Division, remembered the MFA reaching out to a lab she’d previously worked for.
So she contacted Freed.
“When you work in challenging historical cases, you’re basically forced to think outside the box,” said Irwin. “The traditional methods used in routine casework simply will not work on these extreme case scenarios . . . it forces you to come up with new ideas.”
With the guidance of the medical team, the MFA had tried to test the DNA in other laboratories around the world over the years. All had failed. It was thought that DNA tests would not work on mummies so ancient because the tissue tended to be so badly degraded, fragmented, and contaminated by other DNA in the environment. But the new technique allowed scientists to detect and sequence much smaller pieces of genetic material.
“It’s tiny,” said Odile Loreille, a research biologist with the FBI’s DNA Support Unit who conducted the analysis. “It makes it challenging, it’s playing hide-and-seek.”
Turned out, the new method worked. In December, the mummy was determined to be male. It was Djehutynakht, the governor. Freed remembers getting the e-mail after years of speculation. She sent her own e-mail about this unique gender reveal. “It’s a boy!”
“It was really our last best chance and they succeeded,” she said. “It’s not something that you could’ve imagined five years ago. Little did Djehutynakht know that he’d be on the cutting edge of science.”Cristela Guerra can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @CristelaGuerra.