"Everyone seems to have a degree of it," Montgomerie said of the particulates, "it doesn't seem to be confined to one social group."
"It would definitely increase your chances of getting a lung infection and also probably increase your chances of something like pneumonia as well," Montgomerie said.
Lung disease has been detected before in Egyptian mummies. One notable case was documented in the 1970s by Eddie Tapp, also from the University of Manchester.
Tapp examined the lungs of a 3,800-year old-mummy named Nekht-ankh. Although this person lived to be nearly 60, his lungs were in bad shape and he may have had trouble breathing, Tapp found.
"The lung tissue appeared to be damaged and to contain a good deal of scarring," Tapp wrote in the book "The Manchester Mummy Project" (Manchester University Press, 1979). "Amongst the fibrous tissue were several aggregations of fine particles."
Particulates and evidence of scarring have been found in the lungs of Nekht-Ankh, a nobleman who lived about 3,800 years ago in the town of Rifeh. Here, his lung tissue has been rehydrated, giving it a more lifelike appearance. (Photo: Roger Montgomerie/University of Manchester)
Ancient air pollution
The question now facing researchers is why were particulates so prevalent in Egyptian society?
While ancient Egypt was a preindustrial society, its people did engage in cooking, metal working and mining, all activities that can generate air pollution. In addition, the Egyptian climate, with its deserts and sandstorms
, would have whipped up any grounded particulates into the air where they could easily be inhaled.
Now, Montgomerie has devised an experiment that he hopes will shed light on the origin of these tiny particles.
He is burning different sources of fuel used by the Egyptians and capturing the particulates they create. "What I can do is go back to the ancient soot, from the ancient lung tissue, and compare the two."
In addition, he is gathering sand from archaeological sites in Egypt and comparing them to sandy particulates found in the lungs. He said that sand from the desert is eroded and should be "nice and rounded" whereas sand from manufacturing or quarrying "should be fresh sand and should be sharp and angular."
He told LiveScience that it will be at least three months until he has results back from his experiment.
This research was presented at the 12th annual Current Research in Egyptology conference, held in March at Durham University in the United Kingdom.
This article was reprinted with permission from LiveScience.
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