CT Scanners Crack Open a Mummy Mystery

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In the late 1950s, the Natural History Museum received an ancient Egyptian mummy from the Wistar Institute. For years, curators and researchers knew very little about the body wrapped up inside. But recent technological advancements have revealed the individual’s age and gender—a male, roughly 40 years old—as well as something else hidden within the wrappings, says Dave Hunt, an anthropologist at the Natural History Museum.

“He has three packets that were inside of the abdomen. They removed all the organs, and these have been stuffed back up in there to fill it out again,” says Hunt. Packing the linen rolls back inside, he says, was part of the mummification process for high-status individuals, so that they would more closely resemble what they had looked like during life. “In their religious beliefs, for the Baa spirit, the body was their temple, their place for residing at night. They left during the day and they came back at night, and they had to recognize who to come back to,” he says.

These revelations and many more have come thanks to the use of CT scanning technology. Deep in the bowels of the Natural History Museum, the gleaming white scanner looks remarkably out of place in an office packed with animal skulls, old violins and specimens floating in glass jars. But it has become one of the most indispensable instruments at hand for researchers studying the insides of fragile artifacts.

In recent years, they have trained the machine on all sorts of artifacts across the Institution. Technicians use the machines to generate a series of 2D x-ray images of the mummies, which can then be compiled and converted into a 3D video, as shown above. What’s more, different scanning filters can distinguish between different materials, so bone and soft tissue can be visually represented with different colors and textures.

The technology is ever-improving, says Hunt. “This one here does one millimeter slices, and we’re going to be receiving a new one here in a month that will do six-tenths of a millimeter.” This will enable more refined images to be made in a shorter amount of time.

“We’ve done spacesuits, we’ve done the pandas when they died, we’ve done living animals from the Zoo, we’ve done rare books, we’ve done statuary from the Hirshhorn, we’ve done fossil corals, we’ve done marine mammals. It’s a museum-wide kind of thing,” says Hunt. A previous study scanned Stradivarius violins, revealing previously unknown details about their thickness and composition. Once, staff from the National Zoo brought in a turtle that had swallowed a piece of foil, wanting to see if he would be okay. Hunt says, “We told them, ‘Yes, he has swallowed this thing, and it’s going to pass, but he is not a he, he is a she.’ And they said, ‘Oh, that’s why they haven’t had any children!’”

The CT scanning technology is so valuable because it allows researchers to get information they could only otherwise learn by taking the artifacts apart. Hunt says, “A lot of the mummies have been scanned because this is a way of studying them without having to do any type of damage to them.” Because many of the mummies are animals, some species couldn’t even be identified without the scans. “There’s one mummy that just looks like a bundle,” he says. “It’s a snake that actually has a shrew or mouse inside. So they had fed it, and it was in the process of digesting. With the CT scanner, you can see this, and you can see this in 3D.”

The mummy pictured in the video will be on display starting November 17th, in the exhibition, “Eternal Life in Ancient Egypt.” The show explores how burial customs provide insight into daily Egyptian life and culture. This 3D scan and others will be featured on an accompanying website, and Hunt hopes that they will be included into interactive visitor apps, currently in the works. In addition to helping experts learn about the artifacts themselves, the scans will help visitors understand the process of research.

“We’ll have evidence to show how you tell the sex of the individual, how you tell the age of the individual,” Hunt says. “These CT scans are going to help show visitors ‘how do we know what we know?’”

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