Mummies, biomedical Egyptology, and preserving eternity: Professor Rosalie David’s vision for her discipline and her legacy

Mummies, biomedical Egyptology, and preserving eternity: Professor Rosalie David’s vision for her discipline and her legacy

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    Image left: Professor Rosalie David OBE, right: Professor Rosalie David and team investigating Mummy 1770 in 1975
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    Professor Rosalie David OBE on an archaeological mission to study human remains at the Royal Workers' town at Deir el-Medina, Egypt

Very few people can boast of having served as director of the International Mummy Database. The remarkable Professor Rosalie David OBE is one of the few.

I really want to help students; that is the most important thing — in particular, I want to support early career researchers, and this is a vision I share with Cambridge. 

Professor Rosalie David OBE

As a biomedical Egyptologist, Rosalie has spent a distinguished career using biomedical science to enhance our understanding of Ancient Egypt.  

And she’s been front and centre in helping to interpret and define mummies for a modern audience, from film, television and TEDx to an appearance on BBC Radio 4’s panel show The Infinite Monkey Cage, lending gravitas and erudition to the programme’s usual mayhem. Spinning riveting stories, Rosalie traced modern pharmacological and surgical techniques back through the Greeks and Romans to ancient Egypt — pausing along the way to establish just when ‘Ancient’ turned into ‘Medieval’ (the 6th century), confess her favourite Egyptian death ritual (‘the opening of the mouth’), and even reveal her favourite mummy — a chantress in one of the temples.   

Now, Rosalie has made a legacy pledge to benefit the science of Egyptology through the Department of Archaeology at the University of Cambridge. We caught up with her to find out the colourful tales of what fired her imagination at the beginning of her career, what inspires her now, and the story behind her gift.  

Life, death, and mummification on the Nile 

Born in Cardiff, she completed a Bachelor of Arts degree in ancient history at University College London in 1967, and then joined the University of Liverpool for her graduate studies, gaining a PhD in 1971. Her thesis considered ancient Egyptian temple rituals. 

What inspired her to go into Egyptology? 

"When I was 6 years of age, we had a talk at school about Ancient Egypt and the teacher showed us a line drawing of three pyramids (not the very famous ones - a different grouping) and that was it. I went home to my parents and told them, “This is what I want to do”. I never wanted to do anything else.    

I think lots of children have these wonderful moments, but they are not always able to fulfil the dream, or life just doesn’t work out that way. I was very fortunate in that I was able to pursue it, and I was at a school that taught Latin and Greek, which further fuelled my interest in ancient times. Eventually, I found biomedical Egyptology and was happy to be gainfully employed in this fascinating field."

She arrived at the University of Manchester in 1972 and is now Professor Emerita at the KNH Centre for Biomedical Egyptology, having reanimated — so to speak — mummy studies at Manchester in 1975. Here, she built on the Manchester Egyptian Mummy Research Project, including collaboration with science institutions in Egypt. In 1974 she began giving educational talks on Nile River cruises. 

Image left: Professor Rosalie David with sandals discovered on Mummy 1770 in 1975, image right: Professor Rosalie David and pathologist discuss autopsy of Mummy 1770 in 1975

Professor Rosalie David and pathologist discuss autopsy of Mummy 1770 in 1975

Mummy studies at the University of Manchester date back to 1907 when Dr Margaret Murray undertook one of the first interdisciplinary studies on two Middle Kingdom mummies at the Manchester Museum. They were systematically unwrapped and dissected by specialists in the fields of chemistry, anatomy and textiles to produce a detailed physical examination which accompanied the archaeological study of their tomb assemblage. In the years following, techniques for researching mummified remains improved and physical unwrappings have become a thing of the past. 

Rosalie curated the Egyptology collection at the Manchester Museum for 30 years, where in 1997 the only Ancient Egyptian Mummy Tissue Bank was established as a resource for ongoing research in this area. In 2003 Rosalie became the first director of the KNH Centre for Biological and Forensic Studies in Egyptology, established at the University of Manchester through a generous private donation. This Centre is a hub for the fields of bioarchaeology and Egyptology.

Now, Rosalie is collaborating with Dr Judith Bunbury (Department of Earth Sciences and St Edmund’s College) working on the New Kingdom Research Foundation who has conducted a decade of investigations into the necropoli (large, designed cemeteries with elaborate tomb monuments) of the Western Theban Mountain. 

She has recently been made an Honorary Research Associate at the McDonald Institute for Archaeological Research. 

Mummies: why they aren’t ‘dead to us’ 

Rosalie spoke with real feeling on The Infinite Monkey Cage about how mummies are so much more than preserved bodies to her and her colleagues, partly because of the thorough, cutting-edge research methods that effectively allow them to open a portal to the past:  

"And this is what it gives us. We can see the diet they ate, where they lived, what their diseases were, and sometimes the cause of death. We can reconstruct the face. So they are individuals — and I think this is really important — that they’re not just bodies, they’re not just mummies, they were and they still are individuals, often with a coffin with a name on it and a title so we know what they did. You’re looking at an individual and seeing how they lived and what their world was like."

It's clear that Rosalie’s life’s work has been to reframe and reinterpret mummies for new generations: as people with a lot to teach us, not simply objects to regard and study. 

What does she think the world of biomedical Egyptology will look like in 50 years?  

"I think it could be incredible because now there are such methods as discovery proteomics which is a new way of identifying a range of diseases in the body. With mummies and ancient human remains the current techniques are very good — such as x-ray, microscopic techniques or ancient DNA — but they all have limitations. And there are some diseases that people must have had, presumably, that defy this current way of being captured by these techniques.  

Discovery proteomics would open up the opportunity to discover other diseases (such as neurological diseases) in human remains. That, and the developments that might come from it, mean there are going to be huge advances in the coming years. Collecting lots of data from lots of mummies over the next decades is so important — as we do so, we will begin to see epidemiological patterns of how diseases emerged, developed and faded away; how they got worse and got better.

All this helps our understanding of disease and modern health — looking at the past to learn where disease is from and where it is going. Mummies preserve the data on disease; they are the ‘museum of disease’ — the evidence is there if you have the tools to diagnose it.   

The future, in a nutshell, won’t just be the study of mummies, but about this interaction between history, archaeology, and medical and bio-science, and importantly how this impacts society today."

Preserving the best of life: what legacy giving means to Rosalie

The ancient Egyptians believed that mummification ensured that their lives would continue — without problems or illnesses, just with what they had most loved and enjoyed. In some ways, that’s precisely what Rosalie is accomplishing with her legacy gift.  

What inspired her to leave a gift in her Will? 

"The straightforward answer is: I have no close relatives. So, then you think about what you would like to do and be remembered for.  

In my subject area there are so many possibilities and opportunities, so my legacy will help develop this potential in many ways — for example, seeing biomedical Egyptology evolve as a proper subject within Egyptology.  

Even if I’d had close relatives, I would still have wanted to do this because it reaches out to many young people, giving them opportunities, which closes a particular circle for me....When I studied at UCL, I was given £150 from an anonymous American donor as a travel bursary to go see the place I was studying. I travelled to Egypt, Greece and Italy, and the only condition of the bursary was that if you were ever able to do a similar thing, you should ‘pay it forward’ in this way.   

I was 18 at that time, and that support meant so much — these legacies do mean so much. The ripples from that gift have brought me to where I am today.   

The gift in my Will is going to support The Rosalie and Antony David Fund, which we have set up in memory of my husband. I met Antony in Egypt; his area was the conservation of antiquities. Without his support, I wouldn’t have been able to lead the life I have. We were a partnership and married for 45 years. He would be so pleased to have been remembered this way. It’s perfect, really.  

A question of impact: supporting both scholarship and students 

What will Rosalie’s legacy mean for Cambridge, Egyptology and the wider world?  

"It has been wonderful to discuss the intentions for my legacy with the team at the Department of Archaeology. We have explored a range of possible projects across medicine and science, and this will even include work on literature on Ancient Egyptian medicine — for example, if a researcher is seeking funding to retranslate Ancient Egyptian medical documents.  

There is also some interesting work going on at Cambridge about climate change in Ancient Egypt, which has been identified geologically, and how this phenomenon affected animals and plants, as in which plants would have been available for medicines."

According to Dr Tamsin O’Connell, Head of the Department of Archaeology, Rosalie’s generosity will have a lasting impact on future generations of scholars:

“The Department of Archaeology is very grateful to Professor David for her gift. Through her own work, she has been a pioneer in the development of integrated approaches to the study of Egyptian disease and health through innovative engagement with the sciences. In establishing this Fund, Professor David will continue to enable and support interdisciplinary research between Egyptology, archaeological science and biological anthropology within our broad department.” 

Rosalie concludes:  

"I really want to help students; that is the most important thing — in particular, I want to support early career researchers, and this is a vision I share with Cambridge. From what I have seen over the years, people who are very good often tend to not continue their research, largely because they cannot see how to fund their next steps. If we can bridge that gap, more young researchers can build their careers."

When they do, Rosalie’s legacy will ensure they’ll be standing on the shoulders of giants. 

Find out more about leaving a legacy gift

If you would like to know more about remembering Cambridge with a gift in your Will, we would be delighted to hear from you. Whether you pledge to support the arts, student scholarships, scientific research or one of our Colleges, your generosity will help transform Cambridge for future generations.

For an informal discussion about a legacy gift, please contact:

Alice Macek

Alice Macek

Associate Director — Legacies

07761 042151

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