When the 2,000-year-old Egyptian mummy described in a new study was excavated in 2010, researchers soon figured out they had something very unique on their hands. In the mummy's skull, they found impressions of blood vessels— the earliest incidence of blood vessels to be found preserved in a man-made mummy.
The mummy, dubbed W19, was preserved using substances such as bitumen (a viscous oil) mixed with linen, the researchers found. The imprints of the vessels on the skull bone mirrored the prints on the mass of preservatives found within the skull, the researchers said. It was most likely a brain vessel called the middle meningeal artery that created the imprint, they said.
During the mummification process that the Egyptians followed, the brain was removed, usually through the nose using wirelike instruments, and then the inside of the skull was cleaned and filled with preservative substances. It's unexpected for any brain tissue to remain intact after these procedures, Isidro said.
The exciting part of this new study is that the incredibly delicate blood vessels inside the skull were able to be preserved in spite of the best efforts of the embalming team to clean out the skull of brain matter. But that doesn’t mean that Egyptian brains have disappeared from the archaeological record.
Though in many cases Egyptian mummies’ brains were ceremonially removed, sometimes they were left inside the skull, and simply shrank with time. Earlier this year, a 1,700 year old mummy was found with an intact brain, but missing a heart.
And while it’s really neat that human actions (inadvertently) preserved these blood vessels for millennia, nature, as always, does it better. Earlier this year, the oldest cardiovascular system was found preserved in a 520 million year old fossil of an ancient shrimp-like creature.