British Museum looks under mummies’ bandages with CT scans

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 10 April, 2014, 9:26pm
UPDATED : Thursday, 10 April, 2014, 9:26pm


Our fascination with mummies never gets old. Now the British Museum is using the latest technology to unwrap their ancient mysteries.

Scientists at the museum have used CT scans and sophisticated imaging software to go beneath the bandages, revealing skin, bones, preserved internal organs, and, in one case, a brain-scooping rod left inside a skull by embalmers.

The findings go on display next month in an exhibition that sets eight of the museum's mummies alongside detailed three-dimensional images of their insides and 3-D printed replicas of some of the items buried with them.

Bio-archaeologist Daniel Antoine said on Wednesday that the goal was to present these long-dead individuals "not as mummies but as human beings".

Mummies have been one of the British Museum's biggest draws ever since it opened in 1759. Director Neil MacGregor said 6.8 million people visited the London institution last year "and every one asked one of my colleagues, 'Where are the mummies?'"

The museum has been X-raying its mummies since the 1960s, but modern CT scanners give a vastly sharper image. Just like live patients, the mummies chosen for the exhibition were scanned at London hospitals, though they were wheeled in after hours.

Volume graphics software, originally designed for car engineering, was then used to put flesh on the bones of the scans, showing skeletons, adding soft tissue and exploring the nooks and cavities inside. The eight mummies belong to individuals who lived in Egypt or Sudan between 3500BC and AD700. They range from poor people naturally preserved in sand, the cheapest burial option, to high-ranking Egyptians given elaborate ceremonial funerals.

"You got what you paid for, basically," said museum mummy expert John Taylor. "There were different grades of mummification."

Embalmers were exceptionally skilled, extracting the brain of the deceased through the nose, but they sometimes made mistakes.

The museum's scientists were thrilled to discover a spatula-like probe still inside one man's skull, along with a blob of brain.

"The tool at the back of the skull was quite a revelation, because embalmers' tools are something that we don't know much about," Taylor said. "To find one actually inside a mummy is an enormous advance."

The man, who died around 600BC, also had painful dental abscesses that might have killed him. Another mummy, a woman who lived in Sudan around AD700 was a Christian with a tattoo of the Archangel Michael's name on her inner thigh.