Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Scientists seek answers from ancient visitors

(Script and audio).
A relic preserved by state-of-the-art science almost 22 centuries ago is undergoing analysis by modern technology. And that analysis must confront not only the ravages of time, but also the damage done by “state-of-the-art” science in decades past.

A blackened, shriveled body in white tissue paper, surrounded by gleaming white-painted metal and plastic. The body is ancient, and the surroundings as modern as they come.

An Egyptian mummy dating back to the second century B.C.E. is being scanned by a laser on a table in the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania. Time hasn’t been kind to the mummy, but scientists of earlier eras took their toll too.

Samantha Cox is a junior anthropology major at Penn.

Cox: The farther back in time you go, the more they were prone to kind of just taking them apart.

She’ll analyze the mummies’ CT scans.

Cox: I guess autopsies started happening more in the 50s, 60s, 70s, 80s they did them, but before that they weren’t even really looking for any kind of research data, they were just trying to see what was inside. They took them apart. Took out all the wrappings looking for amulets things like that they didn’t care about the bones or, the actual mummy part, they just cared what was in it, all the pretty things.

The mummy on the table is called PUM II. That wasn’t his name; it’s the initials of the Pennsylvania University Museum, which is now the Penn Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology. The two signifies that this was the museum’s 2nd mummy to be given an autopsy… in 1973.

That autopsy and accompanying x-rays yielded a treasure trove of scientific data about PUM II’s health before he died, somewhere around the year 170 B.C.E. For instance, parasites found in his small intestine revealed that sewage probably contaminated the soil along the banks of the river Nile where PUM II’s food was grown.

But that autopsy left its marks. PUM II is missing a big rectangular chunk of his skull. It was removed in that 1973 autopsy.

Modern technology lets researchers look inside without cutting. The CT scan surveys the patient with a laser, creating digital slices of images that create a 3-D composite of what the body looks like, from skin to bones and organs in between.

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