Saturday, November 14, 2009

A Look Inside A Mummy

Medical physicists used computed tomography to compose a picture of the body within an ancient mummy. The scan provided more detail in both bone and tissue than a conventional x-ray. The three dimensional image can offer much more information to determine the age and cause of death of the person inside a mummy.

It's a high-tech medical tool doctors use to find tumors, or to map out surgery. A computed tomography scan -- or a CT scan -- gives doctors a precise look at what's going on inside, without surgery. But the technology is also allowing radiologists to unveil some amazing secrets from the past.

Science knew little about the story behind a two thousand year old mummy -- until now. "We had a number of questions because a doctor had x-rayed it in 1986 and had thought he was a bit older than he has actually proven to be," says Sandra Olsen, Ph.D. and Anthropologist at the Carnegie Museum of Natural History.

Archaeologists unearthed the three-foot tall Egyptian child mummy in 1912, but could offer very few other facts about the boy's past. Two decades ago, researchers thought the child might have had an enlarged head -- and possibly died from a genetic disease -- but removing any wrapping to investigate would damage the priceless artifact.

"What's so exciting about CT scanning -- the reason why we turned to that medical technique -- is that it is non-invasive and non-destructive," Olsen explains.

The CT scan takes hundreds of images and uses a computer to join them together in three dimensional views. Bone and tissue are seen with more clarity than a traditional x-ray. Anthropologists were able to better determine the age of the mummy after they found a missing tooth at the base of the child's skull. Had it fallen out naturally, this child would have been closer to eight when he died.

"In the end we found out he was only about three years old and his head is probably normal in relationship to his body," Olsen says.

Researchers are hoping to have an artist build a cast of his face, like investigators do in forensics, to see what the mummy looked like as a living little boy.

"The tools that we have at our disposal are fortunately ideally suited to uncovering mysteries that are in archeology-in addition to anybody with an ailment who comes our way," says Jeffrey Towers, MD, Chief of Muscular-Skeletal Radiation at the University of Pittsburgh.

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Anonymous. 2007. "A Look inside a mummy". Science Daily. Posted: July 1, 2007. Available online:

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