By Hanti Otto
It's a man! After 2 000 years and a bit more, Pretoria's Fayum mummy is no longer sexless.
Thanks to modern technology and a dentist, it is almost certain that this mysterious figure wrapped in cloth was male.
This was determined on Saturday when the slenderly built fellow was removed from the archaeology department of the National Cultural History Museum, and, together with the Ancient Egyptian Society, taken to Pretoria's Muelmed Hospital to have a brain scan.
"This is the first phase of new research on the mummy. It has been part of our collection for more than a 100 years, but little is known about it," the museum's Karin Scott said.
The mummy was donated to the then State Museum in 1899, after it was shipped from Cairo to Cape Town and then to Pretoria. In Victorian times, there was a thriving trade in buying and selling mummies.
"In 1966, X-rays were taken of it, revealing a broken leg. In the 1970s, the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research dated the mummy to 175AD, placing it about 2 000 years back in the Graeco-Roman period of ancient Egypt," project leader Anton Pelser explained.
Frank Teichert, the curator of human remains and the museum's archaeologist, said the mummy originated from Fayum, west of Cairo, an area settled by Greeks and Romans, who also mummified their dead, but not like the ancient Egyptians. They put death masks on the mummies to identify them.
Because only about 700 masks are known to exist, most separated from the bodies, the researchers were not too sure if the Fayum mummy's mask was his own. It showed the face of a young Greek man.
With the current research, the museum authorities wanted to determine the sex of the mummy, its age and the possible cause of death. The mummy could not be unwrapped because it would fall apart, and it smelled musty.
In outline it looked like someone with his legs crossed and his hands by his sides. At the bottom, the toes peeped through the wrapping.
"We have noticed bacterial activity on it. The mummy is falling apart due to biological destruction. It is sad, but it also gives us the opportunity to take samples to determine the origin of the mummy, the cotton, straw, glue and grass," Pelser said.
At the hospital, radiologists waited for their "patient". Gently the mummy went through the scanner as his deepest secrets were slowly revealed.
"Its bones are jumbled. The skull and rib cage are shattered, but you can still see the profile of the face," a doctor said.
No one knows how the mummy ended up in its broken-up state. The scan also showed a piece of wood under its back.
"Samples of the wood will be taken to determine its origin, and the mummy has several teeth. At least we now know we are working with a male mummy," Scott said.