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5 Diseased mummies

Arriving in Cairo, I met up with Rufus Churcher, along with some Egyptologists who were going to be joining the rest of their field group. Next day we set off on the ten--hour drive to the Dakhla Oasis, where the mummies were being excavated.

Our destination was the small village of Bashindi where we were staying in a two--storey house, built from mud-brick like all the other buildings there.

I spent the first few days with the Egyptologists, examining skeletons of the 1,500-- year-old mummies they had collected. All had heavily worn teeth, from sand in their food, and some had bone abnormalities from various A mummy, still wrapped as buried illnesses

In one specimen, the vertebrae in the lower back were fused together, a genetic condition called ankylosing spondylitis. Another had a knee with bone--to--bone contact, where grooves had been worn in the joint surfaces. Attempting to move the leg would have been agonizing. There was also a skull with bony outgrowths—like a crusting of coral—possibly caused by tuberculosis which was prevalent in ancient Egypt.

I even saw a present--day mummy. This was a cow that had died in the desert and been mummified by the sun drying its body. The hide, now turned to leather, had been adorned with Egyptian writing and someone had mounted the relic on a mound of stones.

Several miles outside the village were the Cretaceous rocks. Setting off one morning with Rufus driving, we were soon in the desert.

After mile upon mile of barren sand and sand dunes with no landmarks anywhere, I wondered how Rufus would ever find the rocks. This was a perfect place to get lost.

And then an expanse of rock came into view.

In the next few hours I collected some individual mosasaur bones, along with a number of isolated teeth. I also found some plesiosaur vertebrae. But that was all I found, and Rufus did no better.

My biggest surprise that day was the almost complete absence of any living animals. No lizards, no insects, not even a solitary beetle or ant.

Soon my time in the oasis came to a close and I was back in Cairo, with two free days before flying home. I spent the first day at the Egyptian Museum. I could not believe the vastness and richness of all its treasures.

Many objects related to Tutankhamun and what a big surprise awaited me inside one of the display cases: an ancient Egyptian boomerang. I thought boomerangs were unique to Australia, but here was one that had been used by a pharaoh, over three thousand years ago.

Then I found an object that most visitors would likely pass with barely a second glance: a rectangular block of stone. Close to my own height, it was about a metre (yard) wide and deep. It was so perfectly formed that a straight edge held against any surface would unlikely reveal any gaps.

Cutting out such a block or rock with modern machinery would be a big enough task, but the ancient Egyptians only had hand tools. I have difficulty visualizing how they achieved such a feat, nor how long it took them. An even greater paradox awaited me next day, inside the Great Pyramid.

Clambering inside the tight confines of the Great Pyramid, I soon found myself inside a narrow stone corridor, climbing up a steep incline. The squarely cut stones fitted together so precisely that barely more than a business card could fit in the gap between them: the ancient Egyptians were master stonemasons. But the greatest wonder awaited me inside one of the chambers—I could scarcely believe my eyes.

The ceiling was built from a number of stone beams that ran the length of the chamber. But stone beams of that length would be unable to support their own weight as it would exceed the strength of stone! So how did the ancient Egyptians overcome the seemingly impossible? I thought of little else after leaving the pyramid.

The solution came to me aboard the British Airways flight, and I jotted this down in my notebook. I had every intention of conducting some simple experiments to see if I was right about the stone beams. But this never happened until long after my retirement.

During the following year, I started teaching my new course, on mechanics, at the U of T. This was essentially a hands--on engineering course for zoology students, where they spent most of their time conducting experiments. My textbook based on the course, A Practical Guide to Vertebrate Mechanics was published in 1999.

The simple experiments I conducted at home during my retirement confirmed that I was right about the stone beams.


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