Hospitals take a new look at old mummies

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The Independent Online
IN THE early hours of the morning, a medical porter wheels a heavily bandaged figure into a top London hospital. As patients sleep in adjoining wards, the absolutely still body is propelled into a high-tech CT scanner. The machine is switched on in a bizarre attempt to unveil the secrets of the grave.

It could be a horror film scene, except that the bandaged figure is no actor but an Egyptian mummy. The corpse usually rests in the British Museum, but on this night it was undergoing a total body scan using computerised axial tomography (CT) - a sophisticated X-ray.

The mummy was one of a handful selected by the museum for scanning as part of a project that will bring benefits for both archaeologists and doctors. Mummies were X-rayed in the 1960s, but the CT scans are revealing far more detail.

In the last two years, while the British Museum's Egyptian galleries underwent renovation, around 10 of the collection's 80 mummies were scanned at hospitals including the Royal Free, St Thomas' and the Royal National Throat Nose and Ear.

"In many cases they're very happy to do it free because it helps to test the possibilities of the equipment," said Dr John Taylor, assistant keeper of Egyptian antiquities.

As there was no risk to the mummy from the radiation, they were able to check the optimum angles for looking at certain parts of the body.

"It's exciting because sometimes you see something remarkable straightaway," Dr Taylor said. "We want to do more mummies but it depends on getting funding."

The most interesting discoveries was that Artemidorus, one of the museum's most famous mummies, dating from around AD100, was not as handsome as the fine portrait on his coffin.

Using the same technique used by police to help identify human remains, a three-dimensional image of the head of Artemidorus was created. It showed that he was much chunkier than the painted features.

Until recent times, it was impossible to detect much of what lay within the mummies. The British Museum has only ever unwrapped one, in 1798, because of the risk of losing important material.

But now the scans are revealing the fine detail of ornaments buried with the bodies and the embalming and positioning of the bodies themselves. Organs were removed for separate embalming before being placed back inside the corpse.

The project has shown that the mummified Egyptians, all of whom were from the wealthier classes, often suffered poor health. Dental problems, including abscesses and worn teeth, were common, as were parasitic infections. Carbon deposits in lungs indicated smoky houses.

Noelle Skivington, radiologist services manager at the Royal Free Hospital, said: "It's very good for the staff to be involved - very motivating. A lot of people came to look."

The museum has displayed some of the scans with the mummies and will show more in the coming months.