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Lily’s encounter with Egyptology

By: Dr Stan Florek, Category: Science, Date: 28 Nov 2014

Learning as discovery and adventure.

Lily Day with a mummy A12046

Lily Day with a mummy A12046
Photographer: Stan Florek © Australian Museum

Lily Day, our work experience student in November 2014, showed keen interest in anthropology, human evolution and even forensic science. To match her interest in the Museum work, we inspected some Egyptian mummified skulls. One of them caught Lily’s attention because it is relatively complete, yet the original wrapping is left only in the small fragments, exposing the skull, almost fully, to examination.

The skull (A12046) is one of sixty the Australian Museum acquired in 1880 from - until now - a mysterious gentlemen, Dr Schmidt. As it happens there is no a single document or letter in our Archives where his first name is given, and Schmidt is not only a popular name in Germany, but also in the field of Egyptology.

So, we knew that the skulls were collected from ‘rock caverns’ near Thebes by ‘Dr Schmidt and Mook’ in 1880. We did not know why they were offered to the Australian Museum by Dr Schmidt alone, or how reliable is their provenance. In the manner of historical research, Lily set out to investigate our source, beginning with a letter Dr Schmidt wrote to the Australian Museum – now kept in the Museum Archives.

Our intensive search revealed that Dr (yes) Frederick Mook, German scholar and theologian, died in Jordan in 1880, probably before coming home from a research expedition to Egypt. Dr Emil Ludwig Schmidt was a German medical doctor and anthropologist. He sent his letter to the Australian Museum from Essen where he was a practising physician, a decade before he was appointed an Associate Professor of Anthropology and Ethnography at the University of Leipzig in 1889. Dr Schmidt must have been a prolific collector, as by 1900 he had given over 1000 mummified Egyptian skulls to the University in Leipzig.

Sixty Egyptian skulls from Drs Schmidt and Mook’s collection are from the burial grounds near Thebes and probably dated for the period between the New Kingdom and the Late Dynasties (c. 1550-330 BC).

Next Lily examined the skull, noticing that it is relatively small, with a set of teeth indicating an adult, but only one wisdom tooth present. She noted ample evidence of tooth decay and five teeth chipped or partially broken. The crowns of all molars are heavily worn down. This condition reflects a life condition, and at least partially could be result of a sugar-rich diet, indicating a person of higher social status.

The small skull and its delicate structure, combined with an obtuse angle of the lower jaw, nearly vertical forehead, subtle brow line and minimal brow ridges, suggest it may be a skull of a woman. The skull and tooth could be used to establish the age of the person. The presence of only one wisdom tooth would suggest a younger person (about 25) but the generally poor condition of the teeth, which are heavily worn out and chipped, would indicate a somewhat older age. More work on this skull is required and Lily would like to follow it up in the near future.

Explanation:

BC (or BCE) means before Common Era.

Prepared by Lily Day and Stan Florek