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Sky High Egyptians?

Were the Pharoahs Junkies?
(Published at Samhain 1996)

The problem started in Munich. A forensic pathologist specialising in toxins had been asked to carry out what should have been a series of routine tests on a number of whole and part mummies to determine what drugs had been used by the Egyptians and how widespread such use may have been. It has long been known that the Egyptians had and used a number of narcotics and hallucinogens including mandrake, belladonna and henbane - and lotus, one of the main icons of Egyptian art and religion, was also known to various ancient cultures as a powerful narcotic and hallucinogen. Anyone familiar with Egyptian art will be aware of just how important the lotus was as an image, whether as the columns supporting temples or in paintings and sculpture. The flowers, for instance, were often shown in art as being dipped into cups of drink.

What came as a bombshell, therefore, was the apparent discovery of both cocaine and tobacco in the mummy of a XXIst Dynasty priestess, as well as a number of other bodies and body parts. Disbelieving this incredible result, the pathologist re-ran her tests only to obtain the same results; she then sent samples from the bodies to other laboratories expecting negative results in which case she could have explained her original results as being due to contamination of the samples tested by her. To her amazement, the results came back the same. She then published her findings, only to come up against the archaeological establisment; the results were fraudulent; the results were the caused by gross negligence due to the contamination of the mummies and/or the samples; anyway, the results were impossible. The accusations of contamination were based on the suggestion that earlier generations of Egyptologists had been heavier smokers than those of today and had been more careless in handling the mummies. Stung by these accusations, the pathologist then took further samples taken from deep inside the mummies and had these analysed as well - still with the same result.

As a forensic pathologist with experience of undertaking police work, she was experienced in using what is known as the Hair Shaft Test, which is regarded in courts of law the world over as providing incontrovertible proof that a substance found on or in a body was ingested during life and could not be a post mortem contaminant. The principle is that when someone consumes a substance, it leaves traces in body tissue. Although such traces may be very quickly metabolised from soft tissue, eg the muscles, and vanish from soft tissue within hours or days, they will remain in the hair until the hair is physically cut off. Traces may therefore remain on the body, ie within the hair tissue, for many months or even years after consumption. The Hair Shaft Test is therefore used by police to detect cases in which poisons have been administered over a long period of time or by drugs testers on athletes and people being treated for drug abuse to determine precisely what drugs have been taken, in what quantities and when.

For the test, the hair sample is thoroughly washed to remove any surface contaminants. It is then retested; if the hair still tests positive this proves (to the satisfaction of courts of law the world over) that the drugs are contained within the hair tissue; they must therefore have been ingested over a period of time and could not be the result of later surface contamination by careless researchers.

The pathologist was also able to show that the tobacco concentrations found in some of the mummies were up to 32 times those found in modern smokers; such doses represented possibly lethal levels for a living person so it is not considered likely that they were ingested during life. However, the presence of such massive quantities of tobacco deep inside the bodies has been interpreted as evidence of mummification practices.

Deeply skeptical about the results, Dr David of Manchester Museum ran similar tests on a number of mummies in the Manchester collection. To her utter amazement these also produced positive results and showed that the Munich findings were not isolated. In the past couple of years, similar tests have been carried out on on bodies in from places as far apart as China, the middle east, Germany and Austria and ranging in date from around the same date as the mummies in question through to the European Middle Ages. The presence of tobacco (if not cocaine) was found in all these areas. Nor was it found in isolates specimens, for some areas traces were found in every body tested.

The German pathologist originally suggested that an unknown species of tobacco had once grown in Africa and Eurasia and had been used in various ways until it was driven to extinction by overuse. However, no evidence of an unknown species of tobacco has ever been found in Africa or Europe (unless Rameses II's bandages were shown to be made of tobacco fibre from an unknown specie - see below) - and besides that could not account anyway for the presence of cocaine in the mummies.

One theory which has emerged is that tobacco may have been one of the herbs used in mummification. Although it is known that embalmers and priests kept recipes for blends of herbs and spices which were used during the mummification process to cleanse, purify or otherwise preserve the bodies, such recipes were always kept as a ritual or professional secret. Consequently our knowledge of what was used for this process has almost entirely come from autopsies on mummies rather than from manuscripts or temple records, and to some extent we are still unsure as to what herbs and plants were used.

Ironically, some valuable evidence for the presence of tobacco had emerged over 20 years ago during tests and preservation work carried out on the mummy of Ramesses II who was taken to Paris in 1970s; as the body was found to have deteriorated alarmingly and was in need of rewrapping, part of the original bandages were removed and a researcher was given fragments for analysis. She discovered that they contained considerable quantities of fibre from the tobacco plant - results which were promptly "lost" and disregarded for almost 20 years because they were regarded at the time as "impossible".

The significance of the cocaine and tobacco discovery in Egypt (if it is eventually upheld and accepted by the archaeological establishment) is that it effectively blows apart current archaeological theories about the nature and scale of world trade in the ancient world. Bear in mind that, barely 40 years ago, the idea that the Vikings could have crossed the Atlantic to the Americas was considered utterly ludicrous. Here is a suggestion, however, that world trade was being carried on on a regular and organised basis some 2,000 years earlier. Impossible!

The somewhat conservative archaeological establishment is therefore having to wrestle with the idea that international trade on a world scale was regularly being undertaken from at least as early as 1,000 bce. What is NOT being suggested by anyone, however, is that the Egyptians were trading directly across the Atlantic with the Americas - with or without the benefit of warehousing facilities on Atlantis! Rather, it is suggested that trade was being conducted across the Pacific, probably by the Chinese, and that products from the Americas were being traded westwards through south Asia and the Middle East, eventually reaching Egypt. This theory has received independent support from a recent discovery of strands of silk amongst the hair of another mummy from around the time of the XXIst Dynasty, ie contemporary with our "junkie" priestess. It is most likely that this silk came via trade routes which ultimately linking Egypt with China. Clearly, products traded that far would have been luxuries and their use would have been restricted to either the rich and powerful or to those who had a religious or ritual use for them - eg the priesthood, members of the court and for the mummification of their bodies.

Leaving aside the trans-pacific trade theory, the other possible explanations for the positive test results are downright fraud or deliberate hoax (which would involve both the German pathologist and Dr David of Manchester and which is NOT being suggested); carelessness in conducting the tests (unlikely but not impossible by a forensic pathologist with experience of working with the police); contamination of some sort yet to be clarified; or that both tobacco and cocaine in some form had once grown in the Old World, or that some other plants with similar chemical constituents had once done so. The archaeological world currently seems to be favouring the last two possible explanations, ie contamination or an Old World source of some kind. However, the establishment is desperate not be seen to fall for something which turns out to be a hoax or fraud (memories of Piltdown still raise a shudder), nor are those individuals who have built their careers and reputations by arguing certain points of view happy at the thought of it all being swept away by a couple of bloody women.

Pure speculation ....

Another idea which I find intriguing (but which I have not seen discussed elsewhere yet) relates the later years of Rameses II. X-rays of his skull show that he, like many other Egyptians of the New Kingdom, suffered from appalling dental problems. These were mainly due to the presence of grains of sand in bread and other foods which wore the teeth down almost to the gums and allowed serious infections to develop in the teeth and jaw. Rameses, poor old bugger, suffered from a number of dental abcesses, the infection from which had effectively hollowed out whole sections of his lower jaw by the time he died. It has usually been agreed that his later years must have been filled with constant pain and therefore pretty miserable. But were they?

If, as now seems at least possible, cocaine was available in Egypt by about 1,000bce, is it impossible that it was already available during the XIXth Dynasty, a couple of centuries earlier? The Andean Indians have chewed coca leaves for centuries to relieve hunger pains, and cocaine derivatives are still among the commonest dental anaesthetics used today. Could the Egyptians have used cocaine, for example by chewing coca leaves, precisely to relieve dental pain, even if they did not have the ability to treat the underlying infection? Could Rameses' last years have been spent in greater comfort than has hitherto seemed possible, eased by the availability of painkillers which we have arrogantly assumed he could have have used? I'd love to know the answer!

I'd also like to bet that this discovery, if upheld , will eventually revolutionise not only our knowledge of international trade in the ancient world, but also our knowledge of its medical capabilities - especially in relation to complex surgery and anaesthesia.