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The discovery of a 5500-year-old cold case

Gebelein Man pictured on a plate published in By Nile and Tigris (1920) on page 360.  Image credit: Budge, Ernest Alfred Wallis from Wikipedia.

Gebelein Man pictured on a plate published in By Nile and Tigris (1920) on page 360. Image credit: Budge, Ernest Alfred Wallis from Wikipedia.

In 1896, Sir Wallis Budge, Keeper of the Egyptian Department at the British Museum at the turn of the 20th century, reportedly witnessed the exhumation of six mummies dated to the predynastic era, the period between the Neolithic and Dynastic periods of Ancient Egypt, near the ruins of the ancient Egyptian town of Gebelein.1,2 The first of these bodies to be exhumed was a corpse that became known as Gebelein Man.

When Gebelein Man died, about 5500 years ago, his body was placed in the fetal position, wrapped in matting, and lowered in a grave filled with sand. Anthropologists know that the extraordinary condition of his corpse was due to the natural, desiccating properties of the hot, dry sand, not artificial preservation. Gebelein Man perished around 3500 BC in the predynastic period, and ancient Egyptians did not intentionally mummify their dead until around c. 2600-2100 BC in the late Old Kingdom.

His corpse was so well-preserved that, not only were his facial features and hair still visible, but curators could see a wound about.75 inches (or 2 cm) wide on his left shoulder.4  But it would be more than a hundred years before researchers would understand the grisly meaning of this injury.

Budge acquired all six of the mummies from the Gebelein ruins for the British Museum then returned to England.  In 1901, Gebelein Man was exhibited in the museum’s First Egyptian Room-the first mummy from the predynastic era to be viewed by the public. 1  He was eventually placed in a case with a reconstruction of the stone-line grave in which he was found.

The mummified body of Gebelein Man in the British Museum. Image credit: Jack1956 via Wikipedia.

In 2012, Dr. Daniel Antoine, Curator of Physical Anthropology at the British Museum, and his team brought Gebelein Man to Bupa Cromwell Hospital in London for high-resolution scans to create a virtual autopsy table.  These detailed images, however, revealed a cold case thousands of years old.

Scans of his skeleton revealed that he was between 18 and 21 years old at the time of death.5  When the wound under the mummy’s shoulder blade was scanned, researchers could see that it was a penetrating wound that went through his left shoulder blade, ribs, and into his left lung. Antoine concluded that this was a fatal injury because there were no signs of healing around the muscle and bone.5  Also, the absence of defense wounds, injuries inflicted on a victim’s hands and arms in an attempt to shield against an assault, implies that he died quickly during a surprise attack.  Therefore, anthropologists from the British Museum determined his cause of death to be a stab wound to the back, and manner of death to be homicide.5,6  

Renee Friedman and Daniel Antoine, both curators at the British Museum, deduced that the puncture wound was caused by a pointed instrument, either a projectile point or a dagger. They argue that a dagger made of copper or silver is the most likely culprit. 4

Friedman and Antoine write that copper and silver blades 6-6.5 inches (15-16.5 cm) long and a maximum width of about 1.5-2 inches (4-5cm) were common at the time of Gebelein Man’s murder. 4 When he was stabbed the blade was “plunged into his back for most of its length.”4

Although anthropologists know how Gebelein Man died, they will never know who killed him or why.

References Cited

  1. Budge, W. (1920). By Nile and Tigris, a narrative of journeys in Egypt and Mesopotamia on behalf of the British museum between the years 1886 and 1913. Retrieved from:
  2. Egypt, 8000-2000BC (N.D.). Retrieved from:
  3. Egyptian mummies (2012). Retrieved from:
  4. Friedman, R and Antoine, D. (6 December 2012). Murder and mayhem in Predynastic Egypt. Retrieved from:
  5. Antoine, D. (16 November 2012). Virtual autopsy: discover how the ancient Egyptian Gebelein Man died. Retrieved from:
  6. Furness, H. (16 November 2012). Revealed: the secrets of a 5,500-year-old mummy murder mystery. Retrieved from:



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