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Archive for the 'Ann Liljas' Category

From hearing ears to hearing impairment

By rmjllil, on 28 September 2015


By Ann Liljas


When visiting Petrie museum or exhibitions on ancient Egypt you may have seen amulets in the form of the human external ear. These were extremely common in the New Kingdom (c. 1550-1069 BC) and onwards and served a votive function (i.e. a sacred gift to a god or goddess) as “hearing ears”. It was believed that “hearing ears” would encourage the god or goddess to hear and consequently answer the person’s prayer.

My PhD is about hearing impairment in older age and so the symbolic use of the external human ear in ancient Egypt fascinates me. Today one in five (20%) Britons aged 60 years and over have a hearing impairment. This means hearing impairment is very common in older age. And as we live longer than before the proportion of older people is growing and so does the number of people with a hearing problem. Older people with hearing impairment are more likely to have other physical health problems too which may reduce their chances of independent living. Therefore it’s important to undertake research on hearing impairment and in my study I try to understand how hearing impairment influences chronic conditions such as cardiovascular disease, physical disability and cognitive function. By gaining a better understanding of the links between these age-related conditions I hope to establish the impact of hearing impairment on healthy living in later life.

In my study I have used data from questionnaires on health and lifestyle completed by older men from 24 towns across Great Britain. I have then undertaken statistical calculations to measure any associations between hearing impairment and health and lifestyle factors. My findings so far have  shown that, compared to men who did not have a hearing problem, those who report a hearing problem were more likely to have poor physical functioning (e.g. having problems using the telephone or public transport on their own), poor quality of life and little social interaction with other people. Having a hearing impairment was also associated with an increased risk of chronic conditions (cardiovascular disease, stroke, chest pain, breathlessness, arthritis, bronchitis) and being obese. So what do these results really say? First of all, there have been several other studies undertaken in other countries investigating how hearing impairment may influence health in later life and my findings are similar to what has been demonstrated by other researchers. Thus, my findings support existing evidence showing that hearing problems restrict older people’s physical functioning which can limit independent living. imageBut it also show some links between hearing impairment and health that few previous studies have investigated, for example that those with hearing impairment are more likely to be obese compared to those who do not have a hearing impairment. Studies like this are important when it comes to public health policies on hearing impairment and older people. In the conclusions of my study I suggest that hearing impairment needs to be addressed in public health policies. By detecting hearing impairment at an early stage it would be possible to help people with their hearing problem before it gets worse. Such actions could also prevent poor physical functioning and poor social interaction. Local organisations could also play an important role helping older people leading active and social lives. Staying healthy is absolutely crucial to avoid age-related health problems, maintain mental well-being and remain independent in older age.

If you want to find out more about my study, which also investigates eyesight problems, you can access it online here.

For more information about the hearing ears in ancient Egypt, visit Petrie museum. Objects with hearing ears on display include for example UC 14543.

Gopinath B et al. Prevalence of age-related hearing loss in older adults: Blue Mountains Study. Arch Intern Med 2009;169:415-6.

Helzner EP et al. Race and sex differences in age-related hearing loss: the Health, Aging and Body Composition Study. J Am Geriatr Soc 2005;53:2119-27.

Akeroyd MA et al.. Estimates of the number of adults in England, Wales, and Scotland with a hearing loss. Int J Audiol 2014;53:60-1.

Crews JE & Campbell VA. Vision impairment and hearing loss among community-dwelling older Americans: implications for health and functioning. Am J Public Health 2004;94:823-9.

Campbell VA et al. Surveillance for sensory impairment, activity limitation, and health-related quality of life among older adults–United States, 1993-1997. MMWR CDC Surveill Summ 1999;48:131-56.

Research engager goes abroad

By rmjllil, on 7 September 2015


By Ann Liljas


Our research engager Ann has explored exhibitions about ancient Egypt in Rome and Dublin.

In the last few months I have been to Rome and Dublin. In Rome I visited the Vatican Museums which consists of several museums of which one is about ancient Egypt. In Dublin I spent a couple of hours at the National Museum of Ireland where visitors are introduced to ancient Egypt. In this blog post I present a couple of items on display at these two exhibitions. If you want to find out more, visit Petrie museum in London part of your preparations for your trip to Rome or Dublin.

One of the first things you get to explore when entering the Vatican Museums is the museum about ancient Egypt. It was founded by Pope Gregory XVI in 1839 and has several interesting shabtisartefacts for those interested in the complex civilisation of ancient Egypt. Highlights include statues, papyruses, animal mummies and reproductions of the Book of the Dead. During my visit I took a closer look at the collection of small statues called Shabtis. The word Shabti refers to “respond” or “answer” and these statues of adult male or female form were supposed to carry out tasks on behalf of a person in the afterlife such as heavy manual work. The Shabti figures on display vary in size and some are made of stone and others of wood. A sign next to them tells the visitor that they were wrapped in bandages like mummies and the number of shabtis in a burial could be as many as one for every day of the year. The use of shabtis increased over time but during the Ptolemaic Period the use of these statues gradually disappeared. Now, the good news is that you do not have to go all the way to Rome to see Shabtis as there are several of them on display at the Petrie museum in London.

The exhibition at the National Museum of Ireland includes four mummies, jewellery and other personal adornments portraying life and death in ancient Egypt. The collection consists imageof artefacts from several excavations throughout the Valley and Delta led by Flinders Petrie. I really liked a painted wooden model of a Nile boat with rowers and armed guard from c.1900 BC. The model was found in a tomb and boat models of different types were often included in Middle Kingdom tomb equipment. Boats were important as they were the swiftest and most reliable mode of transport and communication. In contrast to many other models found this one includes an armed man with speckled cowhide shield. An informative sign next to the model suggests it may be that he is the officer and the crew a troop of soldiers. Military features in burials around this time may reflect the civil wars of the First Intermediate Period which ended c. 2025 BC.

Have you been to any of these exhibitions or any other exhibition about ancient Egypt outside the UK? Share your experience with me and the other research engagers next time you visit Petrie museum. Research engagers are PhD students at UCL who regularly spend time at the museums speaking to visitors about their research. We are also interested in hearing your thoughts on the imagecollections as well as research at UCL. And we love when visitors ask us questions! Although we may not be experts on ancient Egypt as our field of study ranges from mechanical engineering to epidemiology, we will try our best to answer your questions. Questions that we think are interesting to share with others may be published here on our website. We look forward to speaking to you at your next visit.  

Question of the week:

Are there any objects depicting Queen Nefertiti at Petrie museum?

By rmjllil, on 22 July 2015

By Ann Liljas

Earlier this month a new statue of Queen Nefertiti was unveiled in Egypt. In case you haven’t heard about Nefertiti, she lived around 1370-1330 BC and was married to Pharaoh Akhenaten. Nefertiti means “the beautiful has come” and to many Egyptians she is a symbol of the country’s beauty and rich cultural heritage. The new sculpture was intended to be a replica of a famous 3,300-year old bust of the queen (currently housed in Neues Museum in Berlin) at the entrance of the city of Samalut. But immediately when the new statue was unveiled it was criticised for being an incredibly ugly copy. Within just a few days Egyptians had forced the authorities to remove the statue. A visitor to Petrie museum had heard about this controversial statue and asked me if there are any artefacts at Petrie museum depicting Nefertiti.

In 1891 Flinders Petrie excavated two artefacts that are likely to be representing Nefertiti at Amarna. One is a sketch of the queen wearing her distinctive tall crown on limestone. The other piece is a small head modelled from red quartzite which is believed to depict Nefertiti. The artefacts made an enormous impact on the contemporary art world in London when exhibited in the 1890s. Petrie also found earrings from the same province (Amarna) and time (1550-1300 BC) which may have belonged to Nefertiti. All these objects are on display at the Petrie museum.

Click here to see pictures of the new statue of Nefertiti published by the BBC.

image1 image2 image3

Searching for the loneliest whale in the world

By rmjllil, on 22 June 2015

AnnSomewhere in the North Pacific there’s a whale singing at a much higher pitch than other whales. This has made us believe that no other whales can hear it and for a decade it has been called “the loneliest whale in the world” believed to struggle finding a partner. But recently it has been questioned how unique it is for a whale to sing at a higher pitch and how lonely it really is.

In the late 1980s the US Navy started sharing their recordings from hydrophone arrays with whale researchers. The recordings were undertaken part of the US Navy’s search for submarines in the North Pacific but happened to pick up whale song too. Male whales sing during mating season in order to localise a partner. Fin and blue whales sing at a low pitch around 17-20 Hz which is well below the limits of human hearing. A low pitch is ideal for sound that needs to travel extremely long distances underwater and whale songs need to travel hundreds and sometime thousands of miles from the source. In 1989 whale researcher William Watkins noticed a sound at a much higher pitch of 52 Hz. The researchers started trying to track the movements of this unique whale that soon became known as the 52 Hz whale. For 15 years researchers managed to record the so-called 52 Hz whale. Generally it is very difficult for researchers to track an animal by the sound only but the high pitch made it easier to recognise the 52 Hz whale compared to other whales singing at the same frequency. In 2004 a scientific paper about the whale’s unique vocal properties based on recordings and analyses by William Watkins was published in the journal Deep Sea Research. In the paper they described their findings and discussed the fact that despite a lot of recording and monitoring they hadn’t found any other sound identical to this. The paper was picked up by the popular press and the 52 Hz whale was soon nicknamed “the loneliest whale in the world”. In the popular press a heart-breaking story was made up saying that there’s a whale that travels across the Pacific Ocean crying out for a partner unable to find one as it sings at a pitch other whales don’t necessarily are be able to hear. However that might not be the case. Some research has shown that there are groups of whales in certain regions that all sing at the same special pitch. And we shouldn’t assume that other whales can’t hear the 52 Hz whale and other pitches just because they sing at a lower pitch themselves. Perhaps the 52 Hz whale sings this way to be better heard… Or the 52 Hz whale may be part of a group but sometimes wanders off on its own. But we don’t know for sure and until we’ve found out, the 52 Hz whale remains a great mystery in the animal kingdom. First of all, no-one has ever seen the 52 Hz whale and we don’t know whether it’s still alive because the last original recordings took place in 2004. We don’t know for sure whether the whale is male or female and we don’t know what species it is. Many think it is a hybrid and it has similar migratory patterns as blue whales and is therefore believed to be at least part blue whale. Interestingly, the findings of the recordings of the 52 Hz whale presented in the scientific paper by William Watkins also showed that it has gradually deepening to 47 Hz over the years.

William Watkins died the same year as his paper on the 52 Hz whale was published (2004) and in the years to come no researcher was particularly interested in tracking the 52 Hz whale. Only in 2010 a new research team took over the search for the 52 Hz whale after having recorded whale song with the same pattern as Watkins’ recordings. However, this new team, lead by researcher John Hildebrand, used several recording sensors widely separated from each other and soon discovered that this unusually high pitch song was recorded by several sensors at the same time suggesting there is at least one more whale (or other animal!) singing at around 50 Hz.

In autumn 2015 an expedition including a film team will start the enormous challenge of finding the correct whale and video recording it. Although the 52 Hz whale may be a giant the Pacific Ocean is enormous. Chances of being successful seem poor as low frequency sound can travel thousands of miles making it almost impossible to identify the location of the 52 Hz whale. Not knowing where to start, the expedition will be like looking for a needle in the world’s largest haystack.

Watkins, WA., Daher, MA., George, JE. & Rodriguez, D. Twelve years of tracking 52-Hz whale calls from a unique source in the North Pacific. Deep Sea Research. 2004(51);12:1889-1901 http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0967063704001682

BBC Earth 15/04/15
The world’s loneliest whale may not be alone after all

Kickstarter. Help Find the Lonely Whale.


Question of the week:

How do older people benefit from domestic animals?

By rmjllil, on 3 June 2015

A conversation with a visitor at the Grant museum about my research on ageing led to the question ‘How do older people benefit from domestic animals?’

Human-animal interaction is a field of study that has been scientifically explored since the 1980’s and has ever since has a great focus on the emotional and positive aspects of pets including health benefits. However animals have been used as an aid in treating mental and physical health problems since late 16th century. Research studies have shown that animals are great at keeping people company, providing emotional support and a sense of physical and psychological wellbeing. This is particularly important to older people who are more likely to be disabled than younger adults and this may lead to difficulties doing things and meeting friends which can result in poorer quality of life including low mood and feeling lonely. Pets can play a very useful role making people feel happier and research has shown that older people who have a pet socialise and talk more, not only with the pet but with other people too. Pets can also help us feeling less anxious and can even improve our abstract thinking, concentration and motivation.

Another common health problem in older people is dementia. Someone with dementia has problems with thinking or memory and could for example struggle to recall events that happened recently, find it difficult to plan and organise things, and lose track of the day. This is because their brains are not fully functioning. Interestingly, spending time with a pet can in just a few months’ time improve brain activity in people suffering from dementia. This make researchers think that pets may help slowing down the development of dementia.

Odendaal, JSJ. Animal-assisted therapy – magic or medicine? Journal of Psychosomatic Research. 2000;49(4):275-280

Kawamura, N. et al. Long-term evaluation of animal-assisted therapy for institutionalized elderly people: a preliminary result. Psychogeriatrics. 2007;(7): 8–13

Bernabei, V. et al. Animal-assisted interventions for elderly patients affected by dementia or psychiatric disorders: a review. Journal of Psychiatric Research. 2013;(47):762-773

Domestic cat





Picture: domestic cat on display at Grant museum

Question of the week:

How can we benefit from studies on social behaviour in rats?

By rmjllil, on 27 May 2015

A Japanese study on rats and their social behaviour published a couple of weeks ago has received attention worldwide. A visitor at Grant museum asked me as a researcher what this study wanted to find out and how we could benefit from such knowledge. Before trying to answer that question I’ll briefly explain what the researchers did.

In the experiment one rat was put in a pool of water where it had to swim for its life and another rat was put in a cage adjacent to it. The soaked rat could only escape the pool and access a dry area in the cage if the other rat opened a gate for it. The experiment shows that rats quickly opened the gate when their fellow rat was in the water but did not bother to open it if there was no water and hence no danger to the fellow rat. The researchers then provided a piece of food in a third cage behind a different gate to see what happened when rats had to choose between opening the gate to help their distressed mate or accessing a different gate to obtain food for themselves. In most cases, rats chose to help their mates before going for the food.

From this study we have learnt that rats can behave in a way that benefits others and they want to help others even if they don’t gain any advantage from it. By saving their mate before going for food it was shown that helping others in danger has a higher value than obtaining a food reward. Based on this experiment it was also found that rats may be motivated to save a mate because of empathy-like feelings. Such findings are important to us because it helps us understand what prompt us helping others. This study also showed that empathy and willingness of helping others seems to be something in our biology. Hence, empathy-like reactions may not happen because you’ve been taught to help others but could be something in our genes independent of culture and upbringing. These findings make this study very interesting and important in order to learn more about ourselves and understand our own behaviour.

Reference: Sato, N. et al. (2015). Rats demonstrate helping behaviour towards a soaked conspecific. Animal Cognition. DOI 10.1007/s10071-015-0872-2

Question of the week:

How do we find out about clothing in Ancient Egypt?

By rmjllil, on 20 May 2015

At Petrie Museum you find one of the oldest garments from Egypt on display in the world, the Tarkhan dress (pictured below) made of linen from around 3000 BC. There is also a reconstructed bead net dress that may have been worn for dancing in Dynasty 5 (c. 2400 BC). A visitor who was fascinated by these two garments asked me: how do we learn about Egyptian clothing? One of the most common ways to find out how people were dressed in the past is to study clothing in art. This quickly gives us a good idea of what people probably wore. However anyone interested in the actual materials used would have to investigate the physical remains of textiles from that time. Such studies can also help us understanding how the clothes were worn. For example, two large rectangular pieces of linen (displayed at museums outside the UK) have been recognised as dresses thanks to analyses of the stress marks and areas of wear on them which were identical to other pieces of clothes that were wrapped several times around the body.

If you’re interested in finding out more about research on the textiles that have survived I would recommend the book Pharaonic Egyptian clothing by Gillian Vogelsang-Eastwood (1993).

tarkhan dress

Question of the week:

Do single-eyed animals really exist?

By rmjllil, on 15 April 2015

In many cultures and films there are stories about one-eyed monsters. This week I answer the question whether single-eyed animals exist in reality.

A lady visiting the Grant Museum the other day found the elephant skull very fascinating as it didn’t look like what she expected. The hole in the middle of the front of the skull reminded her of the one-eyed Polyphemus in Homer’s Odyssey. You might have made the same observation when visiting the museum. But do one-eyed animals exist outside Greek mythology and Hollywood? The answer is yes. And they are everything but big monsters. There are 44 species of the genus Cyclops, also known as water fleas, all with a single eye that is either red or black. Cyclops are between 0.5-3 mm long, have 5 pairs of limbs on the head and another 7 pairs of limbs on the mid-body. They also have 2 pairs of antennae. Their average lifespan is 3 months. Cyclops live in fresh water across Britain and they are very common in slow rivers and canals, particularly among weeds. If you collect some water and examine it you’re likely to find some Cyclops. And there’s no need to fear this tiny one-eyed animal.

Source: Microscope UK


Old age in ancient Egypt

By rmjllil, on 2 March 2015

AnnPeople in ancient Egypt did not grow very old. Very high infant death rates due to high risks of infections resulted in an average age at death of 19 years. However those who survived childhood had a life expectancy of 30 years for women* and 34 years for men. Most ancient Egyptians were unlikely to live beyond 40 years of age and, for example, King Tutankhamun died at the age of about 18 years. This can be compared to today’s life expectancy of 83 years for women and 79 years for men in the UK. Nowadays we routinely collect mortality data making it easy to estimate life expectancy but how do we find out about life expectancy of ancient Egyptians?

Human remains in the form of skeletal remains and mummified bodies (that would be wealthier Egyptians) are primary sources used to calculate age and life-expectancy. There are few written and visual sources that refer to age. Occasionally the age at death can be found as an inscription part of the mummy label attached to the bodies but many bodies to which the labels were attached have not survived or not been recorded. Secondary evidence of ageing includes legal documents where they sometimes have referred to the person as ‘aged’.

In ancient Egypt elders were defined as older adults who were no longer able to contribute labour. Egyptian writings indicate a social norm of respecting older people, but there was no special position in society for the elderly. Older adults were seen as venerable advisers, which is reflected in Instruction of Ptahhotep. This literary work provides both a positive and the dramatised negative aspects of growing old. Very briefly, in Instruction of Ptahhotep, the king, who is old, is requested to retire and consents to this request but he also observes that the young need the old, for “none can be born wise”. Another example is a small number of documents which refer to a ‘wise woman’ who could Old personassist in supernatural ways with unsolved cases although it is unclear if she was any special age.

Although estimated life expectancy was just over 30 years, it’s hard to say whether a 30-year-old person in ancient Egypt had wrinkles similar to many older people today. However we do know that ancient Egyptians were as concerned about their appearance as we are. Youthfulness was the idealised norm, representing eternity. Manuscripts for good health include recommendations such as remove grey hairs and cosmetic prescriptions for face and skin. This is the reason nearly all persons are depicted as young adults and could explain why there is little art showing older adults. However for those interested in getting a closer look of an older adult in ancient Egypt there is a head of an old man (UC 16452) in black granite (pictured) at the Petrie Museum.

*Women often had numerous children and these successive pregnancies could be fatal. Even after giving birth successfully, women could still die from complications such as puerperal fever. Such deaths were not prevented until the 20th century when standards of hygiene during childbirth were improved.

Find out more about old age in ancient Egypt here.

Question of the week:

What do captive tigers die from?

By rmjllil, on 4 February 2015

AnnRecently I had a chat about tigers with a young visitor at the Grant Museum. As you might know, in early 2015 it was reported that India’s tiger population has increased by 30 per cent from 1,706 tigers in 2011 to 2,226 in 2014. This is fantastic news as the global tiger population is falling due to illegal wildlife trade. But the high death rates in tigers in captive wildlife conservation is a serious concern too and the visitor asked me what tigers in captivity die from. I decided to find out.

Among felines, that’s cats such as lion, tiger and leopard, lions have the highest death rates. Death rates are higher in male felines compared to female and cubs have greater risks of dying than adults: about half of all cubs don’t reach the age of 2 years.

A study in India shows that morbidity (diseases) in felines is a big problem and a common reason of death. According to the study, the most common reason of death in felines is respiratory conditions (23% of all deaths) (for example bacterial diseases that affect the lungs) followed by digestive conditions (19%). Many of the diseases kill felines because they easily spread between groups of animals and it’s difficult to separate infected and non-infected individuals.

Hiring more guards and protecting reserves helps stopping the illegal wildlife trade and increases the number of tigers. This is absolutely crucial but doesn’t prevent and stop deadly infections. To help tigers live longer better facilities and skills are needed to prevent, treat and control for these disease-related deaths.


Click here for information about the increased tiger population in India. For the cited mortality study, click here.