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Institute of Evolutionary Medicine (IEM)

The Canopic Jar Project: Interdisciplinary analyses of ancient human soft tissues


  • Swiss National Science Foundation (2016-2018)
  • Athenaeum – Dietrich Götze Stiftung für Kultur und Wissenschaft


The Canopic Jar Project will establish novel research procedures and examine a larger series of ancient Egyptian human mummies and viscera samples from canopic jars in European and American museum collections in a truly interdisciplinary research setting. This inventive focus particularly on the contents of canopics can produce results, which are not obtainable by conventional ancient mummy research methods. We assert that the viscera (lung, liver, stomach, intestines) are an especially important target of investigation, but have been neglected in the past. This is most surprising, given their enormous research potential (for example, most bacterial infections result in a concentration of pathogens within the organs, e.g. tuberculosis in the lungs). These data are of importance to the research fields of medicine, human genetics and Egyptology. The medical field will benefit from the understanding of pathogen evolution, while genetic fingerprinting and pathogen identification are of vital importance to increasing our understanding of the health and social structure of ancient Egypt. The project will macroscopically and radiographically study mummies and canopics based on Egyptological assessments. This currently includes 82 canopics from major collections in Berlin, Turin and Boston, spanning numerous ancient Egyptian dynasties. Where ethically and technically possible, samples will be extracted from the mummies and canopics to undergo; 1) histological investigation - to identify the organ interred, assess the preservation of the sample and identify any pathological tissue, 2) molecular analysis - to assess DNA preservation, identify the individual if possible, examine the genetic relationship between pathogens and hosts, assess co-infections and investigate specific ancient microbiomes by next-generation-sequencing techniques and 3) chemical analysis - to identify the components used during embalming. To date, there are no publications particularly detailing the investigation of ancient DNA from canopics. In a pilot study, we tested such ancient human mummified tissues from selected canopics for molecular and chemical content as well as histologically and radiologically. We have found all of these techniques to be successful, and wish to expand, both these techniques and the samples size. In addition, the planned subproject “experimental mummification of modern organs” will reveal insights into the process of human viscera mummification and preservation; it is an expansion of the previous study on mummification of fresh human cadaveric tissue by us (SNSF Grant No. 120662). In addition, the genetic investigation of the various microbiomes from different organs will build on our previous research of the archaeological oral microbiome. The data from this proposed project will be combined with those accumulated during the last few years by the Swiss Mummy Project, to give a holistic view of the history of disease and will be accessible to researchers from multiple disciplines and other stakeholders. Data gathering and distribution will follow our own unique code of ethics. By insuring that we have a multipronged interdisciplinary approach many types of data will be examined together to provide a clearer picture of, among other things, the evolution of human health, which is not possible using only one discipline.