It was the oddest of scenes: A neurosurgeon delicately threaded a scope up the neck and into the skull of a disembodied, 4,000-year-old mummified head. Sweating with concentration, another doctor clamped a molar and began to rock it gently back and forth.
Three hours later, the nerve-wracking operation yielded a tooth, a time capsule holding precious DNA, which might reveal the identity of the ancient Egyptian head.
The surgical team – doctors from Massachusetts General Hospital and curators and conservation specialists from the Museum of Fine Arts – was assembled recently in an attempt to solve this longstanding ancient art mystery.
The question arose after the 1915 excavation of a tomb in a necropolis 186 miles south of Cairo. Robbers had disturbed the tomb, which belonged to Governor and Lady Djehutynakht, who ruled the district of Hermopolis in about 2000 BC. They left behind a torso, scattered mummy wrappings, fine examples of Egyptian art, objects for the afterlife, and the head.
In preparation for an exhibit opening at the museum today, the head was subjected to a full modern medical workup, including sophisticated imaging at a lab in Charlestown, various failed attempts at genetic test ing, and finally, the delicate dental procedure last month.
“We’re trying to get every piece of information we can out of the material from the tomb,’’ said Rita E. Freed, chairwoman of the museum’s Department of Art of the Ancient World. “The 19th century was the era of unwrapping mummies. . . . Then, X-ray technology became available and we could X-ray mummies. . . . And then, people began to realize you could really do pathology.’’
The mummy’s ancient DNA, the scientists knew, might reveal its gender, and perhaps more, if any of it had survived. They began to take samples, unsuccessfully trying to get DNA from a small patch of skin from the neck of the mummy and a finger that had been recovered from the tomb. Finally, they settled on the place where the genetic material was most likely to be intact – deep in the pulp of a tooth.