Sunday, October 20, 2002

Professor of epidemiology F. DeWolfe Miller has worked in Egypt on parasitic diseases and the control of infectious diseases for more than 20 years. He is the only foreign national in Egypt allowed to examine mummies for a project.

UH professors
plan historic
mummy project

They are part of a team
that will study ancient health
and disease in Egypt

By Helen Altonn

Two University of Hawaii professors will take a team of specialists and modern medical technology to Egypt in December to lay the groundwork for a huge ancient health and disease project.

University of Hawaii

They plan to use computerized axial tomography, or CAT scanning, next May to examine mummies representing a cross-section of the population from third century B.C. to third century A.D.

"This will probably be one of the most important studies in the last 100 years on health and disease in the ancient world," said Robert Littman, professor of classical languages, ancient history and archaeology.

He has teamed up with F. DeWolfe Miller, professor of epidemiology and public health, who is the only foreign national with approval from Egypt to examine the mummies.

Miller was granted the coveted permit because of large projects he's conducted in Egypt the past 25 years on parasitic and infectious diseases.

He also has a long association and friendship with Zahi Hawass, secretary general of Egypt's Supreme Council of Antiquities. They met at the University of Pennsylvania where Hawass earned a doctorate degree on the Great Pyramids.

Hawass became head of antiquities in the early 1980s and "immediately began to find things," Miller said. "He has celebrity status in Egypt and all over the world has become the person you associate Egyptology with today."

The UH project will be centered in the Bahariya Oasis, about 25 miles into the Sahara Desert southwest of Cairo.

Mummies were exposed there in 1997 when a donkey being ridden to work by a guard at the Temple of Alexandria knocked a hole in the sand, Miller said.

Hawass sent workers into the area who "began to uncover one tomb after another," Miller said. "Hundreds and hundreds of mummies were out there.

"We would just push sand off and see mummies under the sand and there would be cartonnage and gold on them. Before excavation started, Zahi said, 'I'll get you approval to come in and study them,' so I got approval."

Miller said he returned to UH to find the former School of Public Health dismantled.

He made a proposal to Medical School Dean Ed Cadman to start a new public health school and get it accredited, which was done in May.

Littman, meanwhile, had worked on the history of ancient medicine and technology and wanted to use CAT scans and DNA to study the royal mummies. But he had no permit.

He said he heard from a friend on the East Coast about Miller's permit and went to see him in April. The two merged their expertise and went to Egypt in June to do preliminary logistics and obtain archaeological permits for a research operation.

Miller speaks Arabic and knows the culture and people of Egypt. Littman reads hieroglyphics and speaks more than six languages. He teaches primarily Greek, Latin and ancient Egyptian, as well as hieroglyphics.

They've tapped more than 25 specialists in paleopathology, archaeology, radiology and other fields for the expedition. Other UH members are Steve Ward, associate professor of anatomy and reproductive biology, and Rebecca Caan, professor of cellular and molecular biology.

Hawass is the project chief, Miller said. "We look to him for leadership. It's their mummies. This is something we respect and we're honored to help them with their discoveries."

Littman noted that the UH administration is "very supportive and giving us seed money to get the project going." The professors have applied for national grants and are talking to CAT scan manufacturers in hopes of obtaining $600,000 to $1 million for the program.

They also invite residents interested in Egyptology to talk to them. For a contribution, Miller said, "We can give them a trip to Egypt they never had."

Littman said they decided CAT scans were the best way to get the most information with the least impact on the mummies.

They plan to put a self-contained unit on a truck with air conditioning and an electrical supply, take it into the desert and run about 500 mummies through it, following behind Hassan's excavations.

Nothing will be disturbed, Miller said, explaining an entire protocol will be developed on how each mummy is to be handled. "By the time we are through we will have instigated a conservation and restoration project as well. CAT technology is astounding."

Littman said the CAT scans will give them information on age, sex and cause of death. A lot of other pathology, such as tuberculosis and arthritis, also will be revealed, Miller said. "We're curious to see if there was any leprosy."

They plan to create a three-dimensional picture of each person's medical history with CAT scanning.

Another goal is to use the scan to digitally reconstruct the faces of each mummy, such as in forensic medicine, but they have no permits for that yet, Littman said.

Life expectancy is a major issue, he said, explaining it was believed to be 25 years old based on Roman censuses done in Egypt. "We will be able to establish what life expectancy in ancient Egypt was accurately."

Littman said there are probably 10,000 or more mummies at the Bahariya site representing poor, middle class and wealthy people.

A long-term goal, Miller said, is to use tissue and immunology techniques to look at infectious diseases in the mummies with methods used to detect virus in blood.

He said Littman has arranged to have tissue flown to UH from mummy collections outside of Egypt to do lab work and develop procedures in collaboration with their Egyptian colleagues.

The scientists expect to be working in Egypt three months of the year. At other times, the CAT scan can be used for medical or other purposes in the villages, they said.

In the early period of Egyptian history, only pharaohs, not pyramid builders, were mummified--a process believed essential to pass to the afterlife, Miller said.

"But fairly soon after, they began mummifying everybody ... In this period 2000 years ago in the Baharanian Oasis, it was an industry."

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University of Hawaii

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