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Radiology and Egyptology: insights from ancient lives at the British Museum

Egyptian mummies continue to fascinate us due to the remarkable insights they provide into ancient civilizations. Flinders Petrie, the first UK chair in Egyptology did not have the luxury of X-ray techniques in his era of archaeological analysis in the late nineteenth century. However, twentieth century Egyptologists have benefited from Roentgen’s legacy. Sir Graham Elliott Smith along with Howard Carter did early work on plain x-ray analysis of mummies when they X-rayed the mummy Tuthmosis in 1904. Numerous X-ray analyses were performed using portable X-ray equipment on mummies in the Cairo Museum.

Since then, many studies have been done worldwide, especially with the development of more sophisticated imaging techniques such as CT scanning, invented by Hounsfield in the UK in the 1970s. With this, it became easier to visualize the interiors of mummies, thus revealing their hidden mysteries under their linen wrapped bodies and the elaborate face masks which had perplexed researchers for centuries. Harwood Nash performed one of the earliest head scans of a mummy in Canada in 1977 and Isherwood’s team along with Professor David also performed some of the earliest scannings of mummies in Manchester.

mummy
Tori Randall, PhD prepares a 550-year old Peruvian child mummy for a CT scan, by Samantha A. Lewis for the US Navy. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

A fascinating new summer exhibition at the British Museum has recently opened, and consists of eight mummies, all from different periods and Egyptian dynasties, that have been studied with the latest dual energy CT scanners. These scanners have 3D volumetric image acquisitions that reveal the internal secrets of these mummies. Mummies of babies and young children are included, as well as adults. There have been some interesting discoveries already, for example, that dental abscesses were prevalent as well as calcified plaques in peripheral arteries, suggesting vascular disease was present in the population who lived over 3,000 years ago. More detailed analysis of bones, including the pelvis, has been made possible by the scanned images, enabling more accurate estimation of the age of death.

Although embalmers took their craft seriously, mistakes did occur, as evidenced by one of the mummy exhibits, which shows Padiamenet’s head detached from the body during the process, the head was subsequently stabilized by metal rods. Padiamenet was a temple doorkeeper who died around 700BC. Mummies had their brains removed with the heart preserved as this was considered the seat of the soul. Internal organs such as the stomach and liver were often removed; bodies were also buried with a range of amulets.

The exhibit provides a fascinating introduction to mummies and early Egyptian life more than 3,000 years ago and includes new insights gleaned from cutting edge twenty first century imaging technology.

Ancient Lives: New Discoveries is on at the British Museum until the 30 November 2014.

Heading image: Mummy. Public domain via Pixabay.

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