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20th March 2023

Mummies, meteorites and mammals: What do Manchester Museum’s collections teach scientists?

Following the reopening of the Manchester Museum, we looked at the science behind the discoveries, from human remains, animal specimens and historical objects.
Mummies, meteorites and mammals: What do Manchester Museum’s collections teach scientists?
Photo: Freya Anderson @ The Mancunion.

Despite being over 130 years old, Manchester Museum’s recent £15 million ‘hello future’ transformation project has brought its exhibitions into the 21st century. As one of the largest university museums in the UK, Manchester Museum boasts a wide range of collections. From local archaeological finds at Cresswell Crags to exceptionally well-preserved Egyptian objects, not to mention the close to one million different animal specimens.

View of a large animal fossil from the 2nd floor of Manchester Museum
View of a large animal fossil from the second floor of Manchester Museum. Photo: Freya Anderson @ The Mancunion.

But how has science helped us to understand the past through these historical objects, and what can the collections at Manchester Museum teach scientists? Join me on an afternoon walk around the museum, as I point out some of the best bits, and try to answer these questions.

Mummified Bodies

At Manchester Museum, you can find the mummified remains of a woman named Asru, which have been on display for around 200 years. In 1825, the mummy was unwrapped by members of the Manchester Natural History Society in an attempt to find out more about the woman who lived so long ago. In the 19th century, unwrapping Egyptian mummies were also performed to paying audiences by extremely wealthy private collectors.

Modern scientific techniques, such as CT and X-ray scans, allow us to peel back the layers of time and linen, without damaging the artefacts themselves. As a result, destroying mummies in this way has since become obsolete, and the practice is generally frowned upon.

An open sarcophagus of the Egyptian mummy, Asru, on display at Manchester Museum. Photo: Freya Anderson @ The Mancunion.

Scientists have used CT scanning to study Asru’s internal organs and blood vessels. Other mummies in the museum have also been X-rayed to investigate their bones and the amulets placed within the layers of wrappings. These amulets were believed to protect the person from evil after death. A common amulet was the Eye of Horus, the god of the sky. X-rays of mummies have proven extremely useful and have shown broken bones, missing teeth, signs of osteoarthritis, and even evidence of parasitic worms.

The eye of Horus was a famous amulet which was used as a symbol of protection from evil. Photo: Museum and Arts Services @ Harrogate Borough Council

However, it remains controversial whether we should study ancient remains in this way. Manchester Museum themselves have said, “in our desire to know more, we have undone ancient rites and seen them in ways that were never intended.”

Scientists have also used samples from the linen wrappings to identify the chemicals used in the mummification process. We now know that natron, or sodium chloride, was used to dry the body and plant resins were used to fragrance the body. The combination of which preserved Asru’s human remains to what we can see of her today.

7th Century BC Bronze Corinthian Helmet

This seventh-century helmet was made out of a single piece of bronze and, like all body armour, was made to measure. Neutron X-ray diffraction scans of the ancient Corinthian helmet showed that the nose guard and cheek pieces had been deliberately damaged in annealing-hammering working cycles to harden and shape the alloy.

X-ray fluorescence imaging showed that the main body of the helmet is a copper–tin alloy. Whilst the later restored nose guard contains zinc in high abundance.

Manchester museum wrote “the helmet was likely to have been a battlefield trophy that was dedicated in a temple as an offering and would have been worn by ancient Greek soldiers known as hoplites. Many damaged helmets like this one were found in Olympia.”

The Canyon Diablo Meteorite

All meteorites that hit Earth come from inside the Solar System and were formed at the same time as the Earth. Therefore, scientists can use the chemical dating of radioactive elements in meteorites to determine how old the Earth is.

The Canyon Diablo Meteorite hit what is now the USA around 50,000 years ago, and in 1956 scientists managed to work out how old the meteorite and the Earth are.

They did this by examining how much uranium had turned into lead since the meteorite had first formed, using the half-life, or the time taken for one-half of a radioactive isotope to decay into another element, of the isotope uranium-238. From this, scientists discovered that the Earth was formed 4.5 billion years ago, with an uncertainty of less than 1%.

Fossils and the Ice Age

Fossils are the preserved remains, or traces of remains, of ancient animals and plants. Essentially, they are rocks, and what do rocks contain? Elements! As we know chemical elements break down at a known rate over time, their half-life, and this can be used to measure how old the fossil is.

If scientists know how old a fossil is, they can use the features of the fossil, such as its wings or scales, to predict what the weather was like when they were alive. Different species are suited to different climates and using our knowledge of animals today, we can try to understand the historic environment and how the climate changed during the Ice Age.

Animal DNA

Museums collect animal specimens to create a record of diversity and evolutionary changes over time. They are preserved through taxidermy, fluid preservation, or skeletal models.

Some rare specimens come from endangered animals that were once hunted hundreds of years ago. These specimens can be studied by scientists to obtain DNA data, which can then be used to identify objects produced by illegal poachings, such as elephant tusks. By helping to provide evidence in criminal poaching cases in this way, the ancestors of our endangered species are helping to rescue them now.

Well, thank you for joining me on a trip around Manchester Museum. I hope this has inspired you to go check out the exhibits in person. Don’t worry, I haven’t spoilt everything, these are just a handful of the cool things to go and see! Personally, I would recommend going in the week when it’s quieter so you can take your time walking through the museum.

Manchester Museum hosts lots of events for the wider community. This month the Museum is having a public showcase of its brand new Variable Harlequin frog exhibit on March 22, as well as hosting Iftar on March 29.

Freya Anderson

Freya Anderson

Chemistry BSc from the University of Liverpool, currently studying an MSc in Science and Health Communications at the University of Manchester

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