Saturday, March 05, 2011

Radiology Helps Unwrap Mummy Mystery

The University of Vermont

In January, the scans were shared by Johnson with a room full of experts -- a group comprising anthropologists, museum staff, medical examiners, and a forensic dentist. As Johnson scrolled through the images -- the mummy's skull, its disjointed jaw bone, a pile of bone fragments (likely what remains of her hands), as well as an unidentified circular object near her midsection (perhaps a decorative plate?) -- the researchers asked questions and reflected on what they were seeing.

Of most interest was the mummy's cause of death. Could it be determined now that clearer pictures of her bones were available? The experts focused on a skull fracture -- also seen in the original x-rays, but visible now from a variety of angles, as Johnson turned and rotated the three-dimensional images. While it's not possible to say decisively that it was the cause of her demise, the fracture, as state medical examiner Steve Shapiro noted, shows little to no evidence of healing, meaning it was sustained within a week or two prior to death or post-mortem.

Another benefit of the detailed CT scans is the ability to see inside of the mummy's skull to have a look at the delicate bone structure within that has largely remained intact. The significance of this, Johnson says, relates to the practice of removing the brain, a procedure ubiquitous in Egyptian mummification. One of the most well known methods -- through the nose -- was the first to be considered.

"Everything's intact there," said Steven Shapiro, chief medical examiner for the State of Vermont, referring to the nasal bones. "They probably didn't go through the nose with anything."

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