Scientists seek answers from ancient visitors

    A relic preserved by state-of-the-art science almost 22 centuries ago is undergoing analysis by modern technology.

    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.

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    [audio: 090521ddmummy.mp3]

    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.

    Photo:  One of three ancient Egyptian mummies CT scanned in the early morning of April 19th at the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania. (L-R) Penn student and anthropology major Samantha Cox, HUP radiologic technologist Erika Durham, Penn Museum Senior Research Scientist Jennifer Wegner, and Penn anthropology majors Jennifer Rosado and Paul Sanborn. Credit: Pam Kosty.
    Photo: One of three ancient Egyptian mummies CT scanned in the early morning of April 19th at the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania. (L-R) Penn student and anthropology major Samantha Cox, HUP radiologic technologist Erika Durham, Penn Museum Senior Research Scientist Jennifer Wegner, and Penn anthropology majors Jennifer Rosado and Paul Sanborn. Credit: Pam Kosty.

    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.

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    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.

    Scan Tech Erica Durham is at her computer.

    Durham: Right now it’s taking what are traditionally X-ray images. And then I’m going to tell it where to actually take the slices.

    She clicks through images of mummy cross-sections.

    Durham: The first two are like reference images. Because the machine can see internally, but I can’t.

    Durham has been scanning all kinds of images for the museum, including animal skulls and other mummies. These aren’t her usual patients.

    Durham: There’s no fluid, you’re not seeing blood flow. Or blood. Looks like some of his organs may be removed. But this patient doesn’t move, doesn’t want to know if he can eat.”

    It’ll be a few weeks before Cox compiles all the different scans into a composite picture of the mummy. Then the images will be posted online, where researchers around the world will be able to use them to do their own analyses, without having to be in the same room, or on the same continent, as the mummy itself.

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    Jennifer Houser-Wegner is one of the museum’s Egyptologists. Standing over another mummy, this one called Hapi-Men, she says modern science is doing something close to what the ancient Egyptians hoped for when they were embalming the mummies all those years ago.

    Houser-Wegner: It also brings the mummies back to life in some way. When you look at Hapi-Men and he’s wrapped you have no idea what he’s like inside. But with manipulation of the data from the CT scan you could actually get a sense of what he may have looked like when he was alive. And so to put a human face on this very ancient mummy.

    In the CT scan images that have almost brought these mummies back to life, Cox will be looking for more evidence of what killed them.

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