Friday, May 20, 2011

Page 9: Introduction to Ancient Egyptian Medicine

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Research into the medicine and diseases of ancient Egypt involves the study of many aspects of its civilization. The study of literary sources and artistic representations in painting and sculpture, as well as the examination of skeletal remains and mummies, has yielded a wealth of material. In addition, the wider interaction between ancient disease and the contemporary environment involves the studies of architecture and town planning, clothing, nutrition, agriculture and animal husbandry, commerce and travel.

Medicine is both an art and a science. The art of restoring and preserving health is as old as life itself but the science of discovering and analysing the process of diseases is little more than a century old and could not have been accomplished without parallel advances in technology. Modern medicine is greatly assisted by diagnostic techniques such as radiography, computed tomography, electron and light microscopy, serology and endoscopy, all of hich have been applied to ancient Egyptian remains. It is now possible not only to blood-group mummies but to extract DNA by molecular cloning, to analyse trace elements in teeth by atomic absorption spectrometry, to measure metal levels in bone by X-ray fluorescence and to computerize all these details into the International Mummy Data Base held at the Manchester Museum.

The application of modern techniques to the study of Egyptian remains has enabled new diagnoses to be made and, in some cases, the old ones to be redefined. During the 1960s, for example, extensive radiological examination of a series of mummies revealed skeletal evidence of a very rare inherited diseases called Alkaptonuria, which deposits a characteristic black pigment into the spine. This pigment was seen in almost a quarter of the mummies X-rayed, althoughg in modern society alkaptonuria occurs in only one person in five million. Expert papers were written which offered explanations for this remarkably high frequency of alkaptonuria in ancient Egypt. Twnety years a new technique called nuclear magnetic resonance spectroscopy demonstrated a molecular similarity between the black spinal pigment and junpier resin - an embaler's material.

This book is not simply a history of ancient Egyptian medicine. It is an attempt to present an overview of health and disease in ancient Egypt and to outline important developments in the practice of medicine. Hypothetical or unsubstantiated data have not been included but evidence from modern scientific research has been quoted where this

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