Mummies, meteorites and mammals: what do the Manchester Museum’s collections teach scientists?

Despite being over 130 years old, Manchester Museum’s recent £15 million ‘hello future’ transformation project has brought its exhibits to 21street century. As one of the largest university museums in the UK, the Manchester Museum has a wide range of collections. From local archaeological finds at Cresswell Crags to exceptionally well-preserved Egyptian artifacts, not to mention close to a million different animal specimens.

View of a large animal fossil from the second floor of the Manchester Museum
View of a large animal fossil from the second floor of the Manchester Museum. Photo: Freya Anderson @ The Mancunion.

But how has science helped us understand the past through these historical artifacts, and what can the Manchester Museum’s collections teach scientists? Join me on an afternoon walk through the museum, as I point out some of the best parts, and try to answer these questions.

mummified bodies

At the Manchester Museum, you can find the mummified remains of a woman named Asru, which have been on display for around 200 years. In 1825, members of the Manchester Natural History Society unwrapped the mummy in an attempt to find out more about the woman who lived so long ago. in the 19he In the 19th century, extremely wealthy private collectors also represented Egyptian mummies by unwrapping them before paying audiences.

Modern scientific techniques, such as CT scans and X-rays, allow us to remove the layers of time and linen, without damaging the artifacts themselves. As a result, destroying mummies in this manner has become obsolete, and the practice is generally frowned upon.

An open sarcophagus of the Egyptian mummy, Asru, on display at the Manchester Museum. Photo: Freya Anderson @ The Mancunion.

Scientists have used CT scanning to study Asru’s internal organs and blood vessels. X-rays of other mummies in the museum were also taken to investigate their bones and the amulets placed within the layers of wrappings. These amulets were believed to protect a person from evil after death. A common amulet was the Eye of Horus, the sky god. Mummy X-rays have proven extremely helpful and have shown broken bones, missing teeth, signs of osteoarthritis, and even evidence of parasitic worms.

The Eye of Horus was a famous amulet used as a symbol of protection against evil. Photo: Museums and Arts Services @ Harrogate Council

However, it remains controversial whether we should study ancient remains in this way. The Manchester Museum itself has said: “In our desire to know more, we have undone ancient rites and seen them in ways that were never intended.”

Scientists have also used samples of the linen wrappings to identify the chemicals used in the mummification process. We now know that natron, or sodium chloride, was used to dry the body and vegetable resins to perfume the body. The combination of which preserved Asru’s human remains to what we can see of her today.

Bronze Corinthian helmet from the 7th century BC

This 7th century helmet was made from a single piece of bronze and, like all armor, was custom made. Neutron X-ray diffraction scans of the ancient Corinthian helmet showed that the nose and cheek guard had been deliberately damaged in the work cycles of annealing and hammering to harden and shape the alloy.

X-ray fluorescence images showed that the main body of the helmet is a copper-tin alloy. While the later restored nose guard contains zinc in great abundance.

The Manchester museum wrote: “The helmet is likely to have been a battlefield trophy dedicated in a temple as an offering and would have been worn by ancient Greek soldiers known as hoplites. Many damaged helmets like this were found in Olympia.”

Devil’s Canyon Meteorite

All meteorites that hit Earth come from inside the Solar System and formed at the same time as Earth. Therefore, scientists can use chemical dating of the radioactive elements in meteorites to determine the age of the Earth.

The Canyon Diablo meteorite struck what is now the US about 50,000 years ago, and in 1956 scientists were able to calculate the age of the meteorite and the Earth.

They did this by examining how much uranium had been converted to lead since the meteorite was formed, using the half-life, or the time it takes for half of a radioactive isotope to decay into another element, the uranium-238 isotope. From this, the scientists found that the Earth formed 4.5 billion years ago, with an uncertainty of less than 1%.

Fossils and the Ice Age

Fossils are the preserved remains, or trace remains, of ancient animals and plants. Essentially, they are rocks, and what do rocks contain? Items! As we know, chemical elements decay at a known rate over time, their half-life, and this can be used to measure the age of the fossil.

If scientists know how old a fossil is, they can use the fossil’s features, such as its wings or scales, to predict what the weather was like when it was alive. Different species are adapted to different climates, and using our current knowledge of the animals, we can try to understand the historical environment and how the climate changed during the Ice Age.

animal DNA

Museums collect animal specimens to create a record of diversity and evolutionary changes over time. They are preserved by taxidermy, fluid preservation, or skeletal models.

Some rare specimens come from endangered animals that were once hunted hundreds of years ago. Scientists can study these specimens to obtain DNA data, which can then be used to identify items produced by illegal poaching, such as elephant tusks. By helping provide evidence in criminal poaching cases in this way, the ancestors of our endangered species are helping to rescue them now.

Well, thanks for joining me on a tour of the Manchester Museum. I hope this has inspired you to go see the exhibits in person. Don’t worry, I haven’t spoiled everything, these are just some of the cool things to go and see! I personally would recommend going on the week when it’s quieter so you can take your time walking around the museum.

The Manchester Museum hosts many events for the community at large. This month, the Museum will have a public display of its new Variable Harlequin frog exhibit on March 22, as well as hold Iftar on March 29.


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