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Egyptologists revisit a founding father

01 Mar 2010

The University of Manchester and the Natural History Museum in London are to revisit the work of anthropologist Sir Grafton Elliot Smith and set up a publicly available website on his excellent but as yet overlooked work.

The team, which includes researchers at Manchester’s KNH Centre for Biomedical Egyptology, has won a £160,000 Wellcome Trust grant to re-examine Smith’s evidence from 20,000 bodies buried at Nubia, in research that never received the recognition it deserved.

Smith, an academic at the Universities of Cairo and Manchester and UCL in the early twentieth century, originated the study of disease in large populations and gathered extensive data just before Nubia was flooded by the building of the low dam of Aswan. The area is now southern Egypt/northern Sudan.

KNH Director Professor Rosalie David, of Manchester’s Faculty of Life Sciences, said: “Elliot Smith was one of the great pioneers of palaeopathology and was the first to study disease patterns of given archaeological populations on an extensive scale. However, his work has never been properly recognised or acknowledged, largely because of the diversity of projects he worked on and because the surviving related archival material and human remains are now held in scattered institutions. It is important to investigate his research legacy because it provides an unequalled picture of patterns of disease, diet and living conditions over many centuries.”

The Manchester-London team will look at all the human remains that can be identified, which are now held in different countries, and also animal remains. They will carry out a battery of non-destructive tests, such as radiology scans, and examine archival records to re-evaluate the diseases and the patterns of diet and disease that beset the population. They expect to produce a host of new papers and set up a dedicated website offering a mass of new information to the public.

Professor David added: “This is an exciting opportunity to add new information about disease studies and Egyptology, and collaboration between Manchester and London is a vital part of the project.”

Professor Norman MacLeod, of the Natural History Museum, London noted: “It’s an underappreciated fact that the anthropological collections held in the world’s museums are a vital resource for the understanding of all aspects of human history, including the history of the diseases and injuries that afflict all human populations, ancient and modern. Indeed, we have much to learn about modern diseases and injuries from the study of the records those events have left on the bones of our ancestors. This investigation will open the door to the wealth of information gathered by Elliot Smith restoring both it, and his, rightful place at the centre of contemporary medical anthropology.”

Notes for editors

For more information or an interview with Professor Rosalie David contact Media Relations Officer Mikaela Sitford on 0161 275 2111 or