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Sahar Saleem Seeks to Open the Field of Archaeological Radiology to Egyptian Students

Sahar Saleem, the first Egyptian female archaeological radiologist, says she hopes to see specialised higher education in her field, which has so far been largely restricted to foreign researchers.

In an interview with Al-Fanar Media, she said the turning point in her scientific career came in 2004 while she was studying the application of radiology to biology at the University of Western Ontario Hospital.

She decided to specialise in paleoradiology at the Canadian university after watching an examination of an Egyptian mummy. The experience heightened her sense of Egyptian nationality.

“That prompted me to study this science and to delve more into a specialty that was limited to foreigners,” she said. “My study provided me with a way to employ medical science in preserving artifacts and mummies and unveiling their mysteries.”

Saleem has since become an expert in the field and a key member of the Egyptian Mummy Project at the Ministry of Antiquities. She is also a visiting professor at the University of Western Ontario’s College of Anthropology and Archaeology and the College of Archaeology at the University of Tennessee.

The use of radiology in archaeology aims to “provide a safe examination method, without causing any damage to the organic remains. … It helps determine the mummy’s gender, age, diseases, and physical activity before death.”

Sahar Saleem

International museums that have called on her expertise include the Maidstone Museum in the United Kingdom and the Barnum Museum in Connecticut. She also participated in examining the mummies of monks at a monastery in Gangi, in Sicily.

A Safe Examination Method

The use of radiology in archaeology aims to “provide a safe examination method, without causing any damage to the organic remains,” Saleem said.

“It helps determine the mummy’s gender, age, diseases, and physical activity before death, by examining the placement of the muscles’ attachment to bones. X-rays also assist historians to understand burial customs and mummification techniques.”

In 2007, Saleem was honoured by the Radiological Society of North America for designing the first protocol for MRI imaging of fetal hearts.

In 2016, she was named Outstanding Academic by the American Association of College and Research Libraries. Her joint book with the Egyptologist Zahi Hawass, “Scanning the Pharaohs”, won the 2017 Best Popular Science Book award at the American Publishers Awards for Professional and Scientific Excellence.

After she returned to Egypt in 2006, Saleem joined the Ministry of Antiquities. Her first assignment was to examine the mummy of Tutankhamun. Since then she has worked on 40 royal mummies, including those of Ramses II and Seqenenre-Taa II.

Sahar Saleem specialises in the use of radiology to study mummies. She and Zahi Hawass, founder of the Egyptian Mummy Project at the Ministry of Antiquities, have published studies revealing new details about Egypt’s ancient rulers.
Sahar Saleem specialises in the use of radiology to study mummies. She and Zahi Hawass, founder of the Egyptian Mummy Project at the Ministry of Antiquities, have published studies revealing new details about Egypt’s ancient rulers.

The results of her research have been published in such journals as Nature and the American Journal of Medical Genetics.

The Face of Amenhotep I

Saleem’s most recent work with the Egyptian Mummy Project was a study of Amenhotep I, using CT scans and advanced computer programs. On December 28 last year, the king’s face was revealed for the first time. The work showed that he died at the age of 35.

The American Archaeological Institute’s journal Archaeology chose her joint study, with Zahi Hawass, of the mummy of Amenhotep as one of the top 10 archaeological discoveries in 2021.

Hawass, founder of the Egyptian Mummy Project, told Al-Fanar Media that the use of radiology “was one of the most important means of project success.”

The techniques that he and Saleem use help to “preserve the mummies during the examination and study process,” he said. “They helped us see what we wanted to examine in the mummies’ body, without untangling their wrappings.”

“Paleoradiology has become an indispensable tool for examining, diagnosing and studying mummies, the way a doctor cannot dispense with X-rays before prescribing treatment for a patient.”

Zeinab Hashesh
A professor of Egyptology at Beni Suef University.

A Rare Specialisation

Saleem said specialists in paleoradiology around the world are “extremely scarce” and the main problem facing Egypt is the lack of a precise specialisation in this field. Support was needed “from archaeological institutions and associations to encourage young researchers to join the specialty, and to provide supported educational programs,” she added.

Saleem is currently using portable digital radiography devices to examine mummies at excavation sites and remote places. This technology is an advanced form of X-ray examination which produces a digital image on a computer for immediate analysis.

Zeinab Hashesh, a professor of Egyptology at Beni Suef University, told Al-Fanar Media that Saleem, as the first Egyptian woman to specialise in paleoradiology, was qualified to establish a school that could train dozens of scholars in this specialty.

Hashesh, who works at the American Research Center in Egypt, said that “paleoradiology has become an indispensable tool for examining, diagnosing and studying mummies, the way a doctor cannot dispense with X-rays before prescribing treatment for a patient.”

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Saleem has at times had to work tens of meters underground  and spend long hours in poorly ventilated burial sites at various temperatures.

She says her passion for her work helped her to overcome such difficulties and accomplish tasks on site just like her male colleagues. While she aspires to continue her work using the latest technologies, her ambition is to train a new generation of scholars specialised in this field and provide them with scientific tools to protect Egypt’s antiquities.

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