Agilent and the Mystery of the Mummy’s Knees

For this amazing story, let’s first go back in time more than 3,000 years.  In the 13th century BCE, Ramses II was considered the greatest pharaoh in ancient Egypt.  His most beloved wife was Nefertari, whose name means “beautiful companion.”

Now let’s jump ahead a few millennia.  Between 1903 and 1906, explorers in Egypt’s Valley of the Queens uncovered 80 tombs, including the burial site of Queen Nefertari.  Historians believe that her tomb would once have rivaled the artistry of the Vatican’s Sistine Chapel.  Sadly, Nefertari’s tomb had been broken into and ransacked many centuries before.  Among the few remaining items were a fragmented pair of disembodied, mummified knees.  (Yes, you heard that right!)

Were these Nefertari’s knees?

Habicht ME, Bianucci R, Buckley SA, Fletcher J, Bouwman AS, Öhrström LM, et al. (2016) Queen Nefertari, the Royal Spouse of Pharaoh Ramses II: A Multidisciplinary Investigation of the Mummified Remains Found in Her Tomb (QV66). PLoS ONE 11(11): e0166571. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0166571

The mummified remains as shown in the 2014 exhibition in Museo Egizio Turin (full citation below)

 

(It’s not a facetious question.  During the intervening millennia, unrelated human remains may well have washed into the opened tomb during one of the region’s occasional flash floods.)

The owner of these knees has remained an archaeological mystery for the past century.

Recently, an international team of scientists conducted a multidisciplinary investigation on the remains, including radiocarbon dating, anthropology, paleopathology, genetics, chemical analysis, DNA analysis and Egyptology.  Chemical analysis was performed using an Agilent/HP gas chromatograph.

The comprehensive analysis showed that both legs came from the same body.  They likely belonged to a person who was about 5’ 4” and died between the ages of 40 and 60.  The thinness of the bones indicates a delicate high-born person (as opposed to a more physical laborer).  That fits the known profile of Nefertari.

Furthermore, the Agilent chemical analysis detected embalming agents (non-human fats) that were consistent with mummification practices from the appropriate time period.  That and radiocarbon dating place the remains in Nefertari’s time.

The researchers conclude that “the most likely scenario is that the mummified knees truly belong to Queen Nefertari.”  They do stress that “although this identification is highly likely, no absolute certainty exists.”

After more than 3,000 years, it may be impossible ever to conclusively prove that these are Queen Nefertari’s remains.  But I am amazed at what science can tell us today!


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Photo source: Habicht ME, Bianucci R, Buckley SA, Fletcher J, Bouwman AS, Öhrström LM, et al. (2016) Queen Nefertari, the Royal Spouse of Pharaoh Ramses II: A Multidisciplinary Investigation of the Mummified Remains Found in Her Tomb (QV66). PLoS ONE 11(11): e0166571. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0166571