Imaging techniques unwrap child mummy

Radiology Presentation Section: Silicon Graphics


For this Egyptian child who died about 2,000 years ago, a May visit to a Stanford CT scanner offered the next best thing to resurrection. The child, now a carefully preserved mummy belonging to the Rosicrucian Egyptian Museum in San Jose, took a special trip to Stanford so researchers can try to piece together its life. The visit could solve some mysteries. Among them: What was the cause of death? How old was the child? Is it a he or a she?

To help get answers, assistant professor of radiology Rebecca Fahrig, PhD, used the experimental CT scanner in the basement of the Grant Building to collect thousands of images of the mummy. Silicon Graphics Inc. will apply its 3D visualization technology to the images and announce the results of the findings in July.

In the meantime, Kevin Montgomery, PhD, technical director of the National Biocomputation Center at Stanford, and Paul Brown, DDS, a visiting researcher at the center, are using the scans for mathematical reconstruction. One goal is to decipher the child’s name, written on the breastplate inside the wrappings.

“It’s like trying to read something written in pencil 100 years ago,” says Montgomery. “From a technical point of view, we are really pushing what we do.”

The museum curators got an answer to one question on the day of the Stanford scans. Old lower-resolution images showed that the child’s head droops forward. A broken neck was a possible explanation. The new scans reveal that the neck is simply curved forward, perhaps because the child’s family had stood the mummy up in their home — a common practice among Egyptians of Roman times (when this child lived). After a while, the head must have tilted down.

The Egyptians were believers in life after death and thought that the spirit survived only if the body did too. They embalmed their dead, creating the preserved human bodies we call mummies, to assure them a successful afterlife.

Museum curator Lisa Schwappach-Shirriff says that in a sense, the researchers are bringing this particular mummy back to life, which is exactly what the ancient Egyptians wished for.

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