Inside the Mummy: Archaeology Meets Technology to Reveal an Ancient Egyptian Workman's Blunder, 2,800 Years after the Event

The Middle East, August-September 2004 | Go to article overview

Inside the Mummy: Archaeology Meets Technology to Reveal an Ancient Egyptian Workman's Blunder, 2,800 Years after the Event


EGYPTIAN MUMMIES contain a wealth of information about the past but until now to discover their contents, they had to be unwrapped. The process is irreversible; therefore unwrapping a mummy to discover its secrets meant destroying it for good, presenting Egyptologists with a terrible dilemma.

The British Museum in London houses nearly 100 mummies and is a leading centre for research on all aspects of Ancient Egypt. Outside Cairo it boasts the most comprehensive collection of Egyptian Antiquities anywhere in the world.

Now, Silicon Graphics, Inc. (SCI) has joined forces with the British Museum to explore a different process of analysis: the non-invasive technology of CT scanning.

Visualisation technology is used by SCI in a wide range of industries such as healthcare--for medical diagnosis and in oil and gas--for the analysis of seismic data. The technology was also used in an innovative project called the "Visible Human", where for the first time a human being was "virtually visualised" inside and out.

The 2,800 year old mummy chosen for the British Museum's adventure was that of a priest Nesperennub, a particularly well preserved specimen, who was identified from his sarcophagus hieroglyphics but about whom many questions remained unanswered. Scientists transported him at the dead of night through London's streets from the British Museum in Bloomsbury to the National Hospital for Neurology and Neurosurgery where he underwent a CT scan. The scanning sessions produced more than 1,500 images which were then reassembled into a single 3D data set that could be interactively viewed using Visage TM, VIPS software application.

Dr John Taylor, Assistant Keeper of the Department of Ancient Egypt and Sudan at the British Museum explained this new technology had lead to a "journey of exploration in real-time deep within the wrappings, to examine in fine details such as skin, bone, teeth and also the amulets that were traditionally placed with a mummy"; He concluded that "The results have exceeded our wildest hopes and provided invaluable research that the British Museum can now share with Egyptology experts across the globe".

The scanning of Nesperennub's bone and the teeth allowed scientists to make an educated guess as to the age of the deceased, previously impossible to determine with accuracy. In this process all the elements remain as well preserved as possible since no air gets to the mummy prior to analysis. It is believed Nesperennub was probably around 40 when he died, not an unduly short life for those ancient days when life expectancy for a man was around 35 years. The scans also indicate some evidence of osteoarthritis and also dental problems. As a priest, Nesperennub would have lived a privileged life, enjoying the best of food, taken from the regular offerings made by members of the public to the Gods.

The new technology also led to the discovery of a clay bowl on the mummy's head; not part of any ancient ritual but a blunder made by the people charged with the embalming process, never dreaming their gaffe would be discovered and certainly not centuries later.

Cloudy X-ray images in the 1960s had shown a mysterious "bowl shape" beneath the wrappings on the top of Nesperennub's head. At the time it was thought the unidentified "bowl shape" might have the priest's own placenta or afterbirth, which Egyptians revered as though it was a twin individual. …

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