Eyes of Two Mummies Restored in California Lab

October 24, 2005

A team of scientists in California has restored the eyes of two Chilean mummies and plans to use them to investigate ancient diseases.

One eye came from the mummified remains of a two-year-old boy who died a thousand years ago. The other eye belongs to a 23-year-old woman who died about 750 years ago. Both bodies were naturally preserved in Chile's arid Atacama Desert.

The mummy tissues resemble freeze-dried material and lack the chemical preservatives used in Egyptian mummies, said William Lloyd, an ophthalmologist at the University of California at Davis Medical School who is leading the restoration.

Huck Holz, one of Lloyd's colleagues at the school, convinced Lloyd to pursue the project after he read a profile of Arthur Aufderheide in the May 16 issue of the New Yorker magazine.

Aufderheide is a renowned paleopathologist—a scholar of ancient diseases—at the University of Minnesota at Duluth. He salvages and studies mummy organs from around the world.

In the magazine profile, Aufderheide said he had conducted the original autopsy on the mummies and was saving the eyes for the right investigator.

Holz thought Lloyd had the right experience for the task and persuaded him to contact Aufderheide.

"It sounded like they had lots of experience, so … I agreed to work with them," Aufderheide said.

Rehydrated Eyes

Earlier this month the mummified eyeballs arrived at Lloyd's lab. "They looked like a cheese doodle—very lightweight, very delicate," he said.

"[Last] Monday we began the process of attempting to bring these ancient specimens into the 21st century, so we can use modern pathology methods to examine them," he said.

The first step in the process is rehydration of the dried-up cells. When the team started, the eyes had a dry and brittle texture. Now they are restored to nearly the size and consistency of normal human eyes, Lloyd said.

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