While other 7-year-olds were spending their Saturday mornings watching cartoon superheroes or Disney princesses, Caroline Cobert, ’12, was watching documentaries on ancient Egypt on The Learning Channel. Enraptured by images of tombs and mummies, she’d spend hours watching programs hosted by world-renowned Egyptologist Bob Briar.
Thirteen years later, now a junior at the University of Richmond, Cobert had the chance to meet her childhood idol when he spoke on campus about the University’s own mummy, the 3,000-year-old Ti-Ameny-Net.
Ti-Ameny-Net, called Djai Ameni Niwet by some translators, arrived in Richmond in 1867. Buried in the sands of Egypt sometime between 950 and 730 BCE, she was unearthed by Edwin Smith, an American who claimed to have discovered 30 mummies in one day. Richmond College professor Dr. Jabez Lamar Monroe Curry purchased her while he was touring the Middle East. She now resides in the Ancient World Gallery, a small space located in North Court.
After attending Briar’s lecture and reading about the mummy’s colorful history in The Collegian, Cobert developed an idea for a research project that would allow her to combine her two majors, biology and classics.
“I saw the article, and in it they mentioned that they didn’t know much about the mummy,” Cobert said. “They mentioned that they had x-rays done in the 1970s, but not much work had been done since then.”
She approached classical studies professor Elizabeth Baughan and biology professor April Hill with a proposal. Cobert hoped to complete new and more advanced scans of Ti-Ameny-Net and be approved to obtain a bone sample for DNA mapping, a test that had only recently been performed on a much more famous mummy, King Tut.
Baughan, who curates the Ancient World Gallery, says Cobert approached her about the project more than a year ago.
“It seemed like a very big idea for a first-year student, but her passion for ancient Egypt and her determination to bridge her interests in biology and classics were evident,” Baughan said. “And in fact, only a first-year student could plan the sort of multi-year project she has begun.”
After receiving the go-ahead from the classics department, Cobert spent the last year reading everything she could on Richmond’s oldest resident, ancient Egypt, and the mummification process, going to Baughan when she had questions about the literature. In April Hill’s lab, she set to work preparing for the DNA extraction procedure; Hill has practiced DNA forensic techniques for more than 20 years.
“On the day we took cotton swab specimens from the mummy, I thought Caroline was going to pass out from excitement,” Hill said. “She has been doing many control experiments this summer to prove that she can amplify DNA from mummified material and to show that she can get the DNA markers to amplify from sources of human DNA.”
Since the practice is so new, there are very few published works detailing how to obtain DNA from a mummy. King Tut only underwent testing in February.
In order to ensure the best chances of securing a viable sample, Cobert mummified two rats this past February to practice extraction techniques. She tried to mimic as closely as possible the ancient Egyptians’ sacred practice.
“I kind of freaked out half of the wiccans and pagans in Richmond when I went to an occult store and asked for myrrh resin and cedar oil,” she said. “These were some of the original materials Egyptian embalmers used after the corpse was dried out, before they put the bandages on, to make it smell better.”
In late summer the mummy will be transported to VCU Medical Center where, in addition to retrieving the bone sample, a team will perform new x-rays and scans, and possibly treat Ti-Ameny-Net with gamma radiation to kill mold that has begun to grow on her.
“I’m really confident that we’ll be able to obtain great results,” Cobert said. “When we do have the results, we’ll be able to match them up to different DNA sequences and databases online. We’ll try to trace it to a population, and see if it’s been mutated or modified in any way. There’s a lot of potential.”
Cobert plans to continue her research after the summer comes to a close. She hopes to better analyze the hieroglyphics on the sarcophagus and help redesign Ti-Ameny-Net’s display in order to prevent further deterioration.
“After decades of, maybe not abuse, but at least neglect, I think it would be great to restore her,” Cobert said. “She was a person once. It’s sometimes hard to connect a 3,000-year-old body that we stare at in a museum with an actual living human being, but I think it’s important that we do that.”
“Science is revealing her stories and history to us. We need to listen to them just like we would listen to our grandmother on our front porch.”