In 1971, the Rosicrucian Museum in California acquired a sealed ancient Egyptian coffin containing the well-preserved mummy of a senior Egyptian man. More than two decades later, a team of scientists made a shocking discovery – the mummy showed evidence of an advanced surgical procedure performed almost 2,600 years ago. In the mummy’s left knee was a 9-inch metal orthopedic pin that had been inserted using biomechanical principles so advanced that at first scientists could not distinguish it from a modern procedure.

Usermontu – a mummy of unknown origin

When the Rosicrucian Museum acquired a sealed ancient Egyptian coffin in the 1970s, they were unaware that it still contained a mummy. In addition, investigations revealed that this mummy was not the original owner of the sarcophagus – it belonged to a priest named Usermontu (“the power of Montu”) – and that the mummy had been placed in Usermontu’s coffin long after death. Despite this, the mummy of unknown origin has become known under the name of the original owner of the sarcophagus. zzz

Analysis of the embalming process revealed that “Usermontu” was an upper-class Egyptian man living during the New Kingdom of Egypt (between the 16th and 11th centuries BC). His mummified remains are 1.5 m tall and show traces of red hair.

The mummified remains of ‘Usermontu’. (Wikimedia Commons)

Shocking discovery

In August 1995, Professor C. Wilfred Griggs of Brigham Young University, Utah, and a team of experts performed X-rays on six mummies housed at the Rosicrucian San Jose Museum in advance of a lecture he would give there, including the mummy of usermontu. They were stunned when X-rays showed that one of the mummies had a 9-inch metal needle stuck in their left knee.

Antique or modern?

Brigham Young University (BYU) reports that X-rays alone did not show that the metal implant was ancient, leading Professor Griggs to believe the pin had been placed there in more recent times to restore the leg to connect with the rest of the body.

“I assumed at the time that the pin was modern. I thought we might be able to determine how the pin was inserted into the leg and maybe even guess how long it was implanted in the bones,” zzz. Griggs says in a report released by BYU. “I just thought it would be an interesting footnote to say, ‘Someone took an ancient mummy and stuck a modern pin in it to hold the leg together.'”

A team of experts, including (from left) BYU Professor C. Wilfred Griggs, Utah County Physicians Bruce Mcliff and Richard Jackson, and San Jose, Calif. Physician Grady Jeeter, examine the mummy in which Griggs found a 9-inch -Iron discovered knee pin. Courtesy of the Rosicrucian Egyptian Museum.

To disclose the secret

To study the nature of the implant, Griggs, Dr. Richard T. Jackson, an orthopedic surgeon from Provo, and Dr. E. Bruce McIiff, chief of radiology at the Utah Valley Regional Medical Center, carefully into the bone to allow access for a tiny camera to examine the pin and take samples of the bone and metal.

The scientific team found traces of ancient organic resin, similar to modern bone cement, as well as traces of ancient grease and textiles still firmly held in place. Extensive investigations revealed that the advanced process was already being carried out in ancient times, around 2,600 years ago.

X-ray showing the 9-inch drill in Usermontu’s knee. Photo credit: Brigham Young University

Advanced orthopedic procedure

The research team was amazed that the pin was made using the same designs used for bone stabilization today.

“We are amazed at the ability to create a post with biomechanical principles that we still use today – for example, rigid fixation of the bone,” said Dr. Richard Jackson. “It’s beyond anything we expected for that time.”

ByU reports that the pin “tapers into a corkscrew as it enters the femur, or thighbone, similar to biomechanical methods currently used. The other end of the pin, which is positioned in the tibia or tibia, has three flanges that extend outward from the core of the pin and prevent rotation of the pin in the bone.”

Before or after death?

After the remarkable discovery, the question on everyone’s lips was: Was the operation performed during Usermontu’s lifetime or after his death?

Extensive examination of the exposed joint revealed that the pin had been implanted between the time of Usermontu’s death and his burial. The ancient Egyptians believed in a physical resurrection after death, in which the body was a vehicle for the soul in the afterlife. Therefore, ensuring its integrity was of paramount importance. Griggs added that making sure the body is in good condition is essential to reuniting the mind and body.

While this is the first instance of a metal orthopedic implant, other examples of personal hygiene before mummification included repairing wounds, working on teeth, and making prostheses.

A 3,000-year-old prosthetic big toe that was placed on a deceased person after death. Located in the Egyptian Museum in Cairo. Photo credit: The University of Manchester

“How fascinating that the engineer put so much thought into the design of the pen,” says Griggs. “The engineer could have just put the leg together and assumed it would rejoin at the resurrection.”

“The story tells us how sophisticated the ancient people really were,” says Griggs. “Sometimes our cultural arrogance prevents us from understanding how people from other cultures and times could also think and act in amazing ways.