Latest CT scan technology reveals secrets of the mummies – Al-Tahrir News Network


Preserved for thousands of years, the ancient mummies of Egypt have literally kept their secrets under wraps – until now.

An innovative exhibition ‘Ancient lives, new discoveries’ opened in May at the British Museum in London, and is based around eight mummies which have been the focus of recent scientific investigation. Visitors will encounter each mummy with accompanying large-screen visualisations which journey into the body, through the skin to reveal organs, skeleton and the secrets of mummification. The first mummy entered the Museum’s collection in 1756, but for the past 200 years none of the mummies have been unwrapped, so technology has been critical to improving understanding of how ancient Egyptian cultures developed. A full x-ray survey of the mummies in the 1960s was followed in the 1990s by the use of CT scanners. The most recent scans undertaken have used the new generation of medical CT scanners, capable of producing data of high resolution. The transformation of this data into 3D visualisations has been achieved with volume graphics software.

Neil MacGregor, Director of the British Museum said: “This new technology is truly ground-breaking, allowing us to reconstruct and understand the lives of these eight, very different, individuals.

(photo: British museum)

They reveal that despite the separation of centuries, the Egyptians suffered from the same health issues that afflict us today, including high cholesterol, fatty diets and bad toothache.  ‘We want to promote the idea these are not objects, but real human beings. ‘We want to capture the humanity of these people.’ Dr John Taylor, head curator of the museum’s Ancient Egypt and Sudan department said.

The mummies came from all walks of life, from royalty to ordinary people living along the Nile. They also lived during different eras – the oldest tested is more than 5,500 years old and dates back to 3,500 BC, while the most recent lived around 1,300 years ago. Some of the bodies were so well preserved that the scan revealed bones, tissue and vital organs. Scans of the pelvic areas also helped the team work out their ages by looking at the wear and tear on their bones. Two of the eight mummies tested were found to have a build-up in their legs of plaque – essentially cholesterol, calcium and tissue – suggesting they suffered from heart problems. This can be caused by a rich diet high in fat, or it can be genetic. Many experienced poor dental health and had multiple abscesses, which if left untreated, may have led to inflammation of the throat, asphyxiation and ultimately death. Analysis of digestive remains suggested the Egyptians enjoyed a wide diet that included fish, a little meat, beer, bread and sugar-rich fruits, such as dates. One female mummy, aged between 20 and 35 and found in Sudan in 2005, sported a tattoo on her right leg. Exhibition curator Daniel Antoine, who curates the museum’s physical anthropology department, said: “The tattoo on her right inner thigh represents a monogram that spells Michael in ancient Greek. She is the first evidence of a tattoo from this period. This is a very rare find”.

(photo: British museum)

The tattoo represents the symbol of the Archangel Michael and one theory suggests it may have provided the owner, who lived in AD 700, with spiritual ‘protection’.

“The scans showed two of the mummies with plaque in the leg. That is an indication of cardiovascular disease that can lead to a heart attack or stroke. This might have been caused by lifestyle which means a diet rich in fat or it might be genetic. The other major find was that the majority of adults had terrible dental health. They had huge abscesses”, said Dr Antoine.  You can get such severe inflammation of the throat that can lead to asphyxiation.” One of the mummies Tjayasetimu is a little girl, a star singer in the temple. The girl, although pitifully young when she died, was sufficiently important to merit an elaborate mummification, usually the preserve of Egyptian royalty and the wealthiest families.

(photo: British museum)

Tjayasetimu’s remains, enclosed in painted bandages with her face hidden by a golden mask, were sent last year to an NHS hospital in Manchester for a CT scan. What the curators found was the remarkably well-preserved body of the girl, who stood a little over 4ft tall. The scans showed she still had a full head of shoulder-length hair, her face still in good condition and even milk teeth pushing through her gums, reports the Telegraph. The discoveries enabled curators to estimate the little girl’s age at about seven years old, possibly as old as nine, and far younger than previously thought.  Her skeletal body is almost a foot shorter than the tomb in which she is encased. Why that is remains unclear. “One of the great discoveries we have made is that her hair is beautifully preserved and long,” said Dr Antoine. “The features of her face have been very carefully preserved.”

(photo: British museum)

The scans, show the girl’s brain intact and a delicate veil around her face, also revealed the incision in her stomach, showing how her internal organs had been removed as part of the mummification process. “The rest of her body shows no signs of ill health or long-term disease,” said Dr Antoine, “There is no other evidence of a trauma or that she suffered a violent death.” It is likely the girl died after a short illness, such as cholera. Tjayasetimu may have sung at the temple dedicated to Amun at the Karnak complex in ancient Thebes, near to modern-day Luxor, or most likely, given certain stylistic designs, in Fayoum, an oasis close to the Nile and about 60 miles south west of Cairo. Fayoum is the oldest city in Egypt, founded in 4000 BC.

He arrived at the British Museum in 1835 in a woman’s coffin, wearing a pink skirt and appeared to have breasts. So for decades experts there described the Egyptian mummy in their guide books as the preserved remains of a ‘dancing woman’. There was the question of why the embalmer had drawn a beard on ‘her’ face, but it was not until the 1960s when the body was X-rayed that questions over its gender began to be seriously raised. ‘It is a highly unusual mummy altogether, with the arms, legs fingers and toes separately wrapped rather than the whole body being cocooned in material. There are only a handful of other mummies like him in the world, said Dr Taylor He also has a leather belt and several linen straps on his body. They are some sort of decoration but we don’t know what they symbolise. Some depictions of Egyptian dancers show them wearing similar straps so he may have been a dancer after all.”

(photo: British museum)

The mummy was originally part of a collection of Egyptian antiquities amassed by Henry Salt, British Consul General in Egypt, in the 1820s. It is thought it was originally from a tomb in Thebes, but there are no documents to confirm this. When the British Museum bought the mummy at an auction records show he had a short skirt or kilt around the waist which was once pink, although the colouring has now almost disappeared, and he was in a wooden coffin marked with the woman’s name Mutemmenu.

The skull of man – discovered to have severe dental abscesses and lost several teeth

The coffin has been dated to 1300-1200BC, but Dr Taylor said the style of showing the mummy as if he was alive rather than physically idealised is of a much later period. There is no inscription on the trappings to identify the deceased. Dr Taylor said: “What we do know is he would’ve been from a high status family as the body was very carefully treated. There is gold leaf on the body. The ancient Egyptians believed the gods had golden skin so it may have been to make the dead person god-like. There is also a lotus flower, a symbol of re-birth, drawn in ink on each knee.” Similar padding had also been applied to plump out his thighs. Scholars think both areas may have been specially padded because the man was fat and the embalmer was trying to recreate accurately his appearance during life. The tests also established that he was at least 20 years old, 5ft 6in tall, had lost five teeth – and would have suffered terrible pain from several dental abscesses.

The British Museum pledges to continue to use non-invasive technology to discover more and more about the mummies, and hopes that one day it will be sophisticated enough to read hieroglyphic inscriptions on the mummies themselves. The exhibition will be open until 30 November 2014, so if you are in London before then it is well worth a visit.

The British museum in London

All photographs courtesy of the British Museum, London

Sources:  Daily Mail. The Telegraph