Mummies have long fascinated us. Acting as snapshots of a lost society from long ago, they tell us much about how ancient Egyptians lived and died.
But they are also delicate antiquities and unwrapping them not only desecrates the remains of these things that were once people, but could also irreparably damage the remains and anything buried with them.
So how can we learn more about these mysterious bodies? This is where modern technology comes in.
With three particular mummies from the Saint Louis Art Museum and the Kemper Art Museum, scientists initially considered using magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) to see what lay under the wrappings. However, MRI scanning doesn't work well when metal is present (and mummies such as these are usually adorned with jewelry). Additionally, MRI scanning uses the presence of water in bodies (which mummies do not have) to create images.
So researchers turned to computerized tomography (CT) scans, which use X-rays to see into a solid object, providing 3D images of what's inside. However, in living bodies, doctors inject substances that point out specific types of cells and tissues. Mummies are too delicate for such a procedure, so instead, researchers scanned them twice at different settings.
What they found was an idea of who and what these mummies were. The oldest of the mummies, Henut-Wekjebu came from a gilded coffin, elaborately inscribed with verses from the Book of the Dead. CT scans confirmed that her body still contained a brain, but also uncovered that her lungs were intact. This is unusual, as those organs are often removed before the mummification process. Scans also showed small objects around her head, possibly some sort of headdress.
The second mummy, Pet-Menekh, was probably a priest of a god called Chem. Scientists believe he died in his 30s or 40s, either from disease or sudden trauma. Hireoglyphics and images of goddesses cover his coffin. Scans revealed that this mummy was shorter than his sarcophagus. His head was also separated from his body, possibly the work of grave robbers. There is a burial amulet on his chest.
The third mummy is Amen-Nakht, who lies in a case of linen and plaster inside his coffin. Images of gods associated with the afterlife cover this case.
Further studies of the mummies' scans will reveal more, including details about their teeth and skeletons. Scientists hope to discover not only how they died, but most importantly how they lived.
"The technical sophistication of all three mummies suggests that these were well-off individuals," says Lisa Çakmak, assistant curator for ancient art at the Saint Louis Art Museum. "We would expect to see that reflected in the condition of their teeth and skeletons. The CT scan helps us to better understand their lifestyles."
[Photo Credit: Washington University]