Sunday, November 06, 2011

Hospital tests reveal the secrets of an Egyptian mummy

An ancient Egyptian mummy has had quite an afterlife, traveling more than 6,000 miles, spending six decades in private hands, and finally, in 1989, finding a home at the World Heritage Museum (now the Spurlock Museum) at the University of Illinois. The mummy's travels did not end there, however. It has made two trips to a local hospital—once in 1990 and again this year—for some not-so-routine medical exams.

Egyptologists, a radiologist, a pathologist, a physical anthropologist, and a mummy expert are using the best diagnostic tools available to learn about the mummy without unwrapping its red linen shroud or cutting into it. The team discussed its findings during a symposium at the museum in Urbana, Ill.

The first round of tests in 1990 included X-rays and CT scans, as well as an analysis of tiny fragments of cloth, insects, and hardened resins collected from the fraying base of the mummy. Joseph Barkmeier, MD, medical director of diagnostic services and regional outreach at Carle Foundation Hospital and Physician Group in Urbana, conducted the CT scans at the hospital. He repeated the scans this year at Carle with much-improved CT technology.

"Medical diagnostic technology has experienced tremendous advancements in the past two decades," Barkmeier says. "Image resolution is nearly 10 times greater than it was when we first imaged the mummy in 1990, and we can reconstruct images faster and view them from multiple vantage points."

The scans and an analysis of the materials used in embalming (including carbon-14 dating of a wooden plank that supports the body) found that the mummy was a child of a wealthy family from the Roman period of ancient Egypt.

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