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January 8, 2001

Virtual scans provide clues
to mummies' identities

Researchers are taking three-dimensional virtual tours of Egyptian mummies, learning details never before available without destroying the priceless remains, thanks to advances in computed tomography (CT) imaging. That was the finding of Emory study presented recently at the 86th annual meeting of the Radiological Society of North America in Chicago.

The work cited in the study carries significance not only for the University but for the goernment and people of Egypt. In 1999, Emory acquired a collection of mummies from the Niagara Falls Museum in Niagara Falls, Ontario.

One of the mummies may be 3,000-year-old Ramsses I, first ruler of the 19th dynasty and grandfather of Ramsses the Great, one of the most powerful and best known pharaohs of ancient Egypt. As royal mummies are considered sacrosanct by that country, Emory has promised to return Ramsses if the mummy in question turns out to be him.

To that end, the virtual imaging revealed valuable information, including the finding that the mummy’s skull was filled with molten resin, an embalming fluid sometimes reserved for a persons of royal status. CT images of the chest and abdomen reveal an incision in the left abdomen and replacement of abdominal organs with tightly rolled linen packs, mummification techniques practiced during Ramsses’ reign.

“Although there are studies of mummies using standard CT, this is the first to combine the use of 3D and virtual imaging techniques,” said Heidi Hoffman, principal researcher and resident in the department of radiology at Emory Hospital. “It’s like exploring the insides of the mummies with a camera—without unwrapping them or destroying them in any way.”

Virtual reality imaging involves taking a number of cross-sectional CT pictures or “slices” of the body and entering them into a computer. The computer digitizes the images, combining the scans to create a 3D representation.

The radiologist can direct the computer to make a pass or “fly-through” in a particular area to gather specific information.

The researchers were able to determine that the ear of the mummy believed possibly to be Rams-ses I was very deformed (perhaps as the result of a bad piercing). He also appears to have suffered from a severe ear infection, which may have been the cause of death.

Some of the CT findings verified earlier conclusions made through other analyses, and there is much work to be done by many researchers before it can be determined conclusively whether Emory is operating on a royal mummy.

Using virtual CT to enter the skull of another mummy, researchers found the Egyptians had punched a hole through the bone in the nose, through which they apparently pulled out the brain as they were preparing the corpse for burial.

Virtual CT showed organs were still intact in some mummies, indicating those mummies were of a lower class and that mummification techniques varied with dynasty and class.

One mummy initially thought to be a baby was determined to be a child whose legs were amputated below the knees. This mummy has bone damage in the right elbow, indicating the child probably suffered from infection.

Another small child mummy had a skull fracture, which may have been the cause of death. Other imaged mummies included several women, a Roman general and a priest.


Back to Emory Report Jan. 8, 2001