The Mystery of the Mummified Hand Part 1
Elizabeth Hart ‘14 has been studying Egyptian objects at the Williams College Museum of Art (WCMA) since the fall of 2012, working on an independent study with Antonia Foias, Professor of Anthropology. A particularly curious object in our collection is a mummified hand for which we had no date or background. Betsy and Professor Foias proposed that we pursue radiocarbon and DNA testing to learn more about it. Used often for teaching and summer gallery talks in the Rose Study Gallery, the hand has never been on public view. After several months of preparation, tests, and waiting, we are delighted to report the findings. It is exciting to finally have some context for this piece.
Here is Betsy’s account of this process and a summary of her studies:
The initial inspiration behind this project was to perform a hybrid study of ancient Egyptian religion using both archaeological and biological techniques to understand artifacts that are housed at WCMA. Beyond reading texts about the history of ancient Egypt and their religious practices, examining artifacts left behind was a crucial part of the study. These artifacts were largely a mystery as they were undated and had unknown origins within the world of ancient Egypt.
The main focus of my investigation into ancient Egyptian religion was a mummified hand with no known information. An x-ray analysis and close study by the Williamstown Art Conservation Center provided a more exact image and understanding of the condition of the hand and its bone structure. This inside look at the internal condition of the hand indicated that we could take a bone sample from the wrist for radiocarbon and DNA analysis. Radiocarbon analysis by Beta-Analytic Laboratory dated the hand between AD 70–230 during the Roman period in Egypt. Based on the fact that the process of mummification was on the decline during this time and that mummies from this period are poorly preserved, it seems a reasonable conclusion that the deceased individual to whom the hand belongs is from a smaller settlement that had not undergone extensive Romanization. DNA analysis by Paleo DNA Laboratory led to successful mitochondrial DNA extraction that confirmed the Egyptian origins of the mummified hand as it profiled the mitochondrial DNA as from haplotype L3. Haplotype L3 is one of the oldest mitochondrial branches that diverged directly from the line of the mitochondrial Eve, the initial mitochondrial branch of the earliest females. This haplotype is common in eastern and northern Africa, narrowing down the possible origins of the hand and allowing the confirmation of its Egyptian ancestry.
A close study of numerous shawabti allowed us to tentatively date these figurines to approximately the 21st Dynasty and their close similarity to other dated shawabti led us to believe that they originated in the Deir el-Bahri royal cache. We weren’t able to date the small group of relief fragments, as they are small in their fragment form. The figures on two cartonnage pieces were identified through study of important mortuary figures and typical cartonnage imagery.
The archaeological component of my study of ancient Egyptian religion put the WCMA pieces in context and enhanced my entire study; we were able to place the artifacts in the history that I read about. In particular, the test results from the mummified hand are astounding as we can now say with certainty that it is from ancient Egypt. The mummified hand has been transformed from an artifact to a remnant of ancient Egypt. The WCMA pieces are no longer lost on the timeline of history but have been reclassified as living reminders of ancient civilization.
—Elizabeth Hart ‘14