The ancient Egyptians inhabited a perilous land. In addition to the dangerous animals with which they came into regular contact—including lions, hippopotami, crocodiles, snakes, and scorpions—they were subject to diseases whose invisible causes were not understood. As a result, the Egyptians amassed a wealth of knowledge about the treatment of injuries and disease. Furthermore, to protect themselves from perils, both seen and unseen, they incorporated powerful talismans in their art.
Flanking the entrance to the exhibition are two of the best-preserved colossal statues of Sekhmet, the lion-headed goddess of healing—her name means "the powerful one"—who was also the goddess of war, violent storms, and pestilence. (The physicians of ancient Egypt belonged to her priesthood.) The seven-foot-tall statues originally stood with some six hundred similar statues in the mortuary temple of Amenhotep III (Dynasty 18, ca. 1390–1352 B.C.).
A limestone statue of Yuny (early Dynasty 19, ca. 1290 B.C.)—a priest of Sekhmet and the son of a famous physician—originally stood in a shrine dedicated to Yuny and his father, to which pilgrims came to pray for aid in preventing or combating illness. Yuny is shown in a kneeling position, holding the elaborately ornamented shrine of Osiris, god of regeneration.
The surgical papyrus that is the centerpiece of the exhibition was purchased in Luxor in 1862 by Edwin Smith, an American living in Cairo. On the basis of the handwriting, it has been dated to about 1600 B.C., but on the basis of language, the work is believed to be a copy of another text that was written some three centuries earlier. The work includes descriptions, examination procedures, diagnoses, and treatments for forty-eight distinct injuries, beginning at the top of the head and ending at the shoulder blades and chest. The injuries listed are consistent with those sustained in war or construction.
Coffins, mummies, and mummy portraits that relate to the theme of medicine are also be shown. Nesiamun, a man whose mummy (ca. 700 B.C.) was discovered in Metropolitan Museum excavations in 1923, was found—through CAT-scan technology—to have suffered serious injury, possibly caused by collision with a chariot. (The actual CAT scans are also displayed.) A mummy portrait (ca. A.D. 160) realistically depicts a scar resulting from surgery that would have improved the vision and facial appearance of a youth afflicted with a congenital lesion.
The Metternich Stela, one of the most perfectly preserved objects from ancient Egypt, was presented to the Austrian count Metternich by the viceroy of Egypt, Muhammad Ali, in 1828. Originally erected in Heliopolis (part of modern Cairo) during the reign of Nectanebo II (360–343 B.C.), it is covered with finely detailed three-dimensional reliefs, incised images, and texts for protection from and cure of snakebites and scorpion stings. The magical quality of the words was thought to be activated by reciting the texts aloud or by drinking water that had been poured over the stone.
Other highlights include a physician's ointment jar; a statue of Imhotep, an ancient Egyptian official who was deified in Egypt and, under the Greeks, became identified with Asclepius, the ancient Greek god of medicine; vessels associated with healing substances; tubes for disease-preventing cosmetics; magical implements; vases in the shape of flowers that had medicinal or analgesic properties; and a footed libation bowl that acts simultaneously as a three-dimensional hieroglyphic rebus meaning "clean."