Secret Lives of Mummies: Which Hospital Technology Cracked This Ancient Mystery?

April 3, 2014

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In 1909, New York businessman Samuel Brown traveled to Egypt to purchase a pair of ancient mummies and two coffin bottoms for the Albany Institute of History and Art, where he served as a board member. 

Brown and generations of researchers believed that he brought home a male and a female mummy. But when Emory University Egyptologist Peter Lacovara visited the Institute a few years ago, he thought that one of the mummies was in the wrong coffin.

Lacovara knew that other museums have made errors “in sexing mummies,” so he proposed to scan the remains on GE computed tomography (CT) and X-ray equipment at the Albany Medical Center.

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Peter Lacovara, far right, with the 3,000-year-old mummy of the Egyptian priest and sculptor Ankhefenmut. The mummy was thought to be a woman. Top image: In 1939, GE medical scanners produced X-ray images of mummies for the New York World’s Fair (above). Image courtesy of the New York Public Library. 

The tests confirmed his hunch. The 3,000-year-old mummy of a woman had a male pelvis and a man’s thicker and angular bones. The team also noticed that the upper right side of the mummy’s body “was decidedly more muscular.”

This fact, combined with markings on the coffin, led them to conclude that the mummy was Ankhefenmut, a priest and a sculptor at the Temple of Mut near Luxor, who lived between the years of 1069 and 945 BCE.

The scans yielded other treasures. The researchers found that the mummy’s bones were “well mineralized, solid and uniform,” indicating that Ankhefenmut’s diet “contained adequate protein and calcium.” They observed that “his dentition was exceptional, with no cavities or loss of teeth.” He was about 50 when he died.

Last year the Albany Institute invited Lacovara to curate a new exhibit that corrects the story of its mummies. The show, GE Presents: The Mystery of the Albany Mummies, will run through June 8, 2014.

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Mummy board of Ankhefenmut, Credit: Trustees of the British Museum.

This is not the first time GE medical technology helped historians explore the past. In 2011, anthropologists from the Milwaukee Public Museum scanned mummies from Peru and Egypt, including the head of an Egyptian man named Djed-Hor.

Djed-Hor was first scanned in 1986. But in 2006 a newer technology revealed a hole in his skull. It led anthropologists to conclude that he had undergone a primitive form of brain surgery.

“We’ve been doing this for 25 years with GE,” said Carter Lupton, the Milwaukee museum’s head of anthropology. “Every time we’ve come out, it’s a different generation of technology, better imaging, better information, better ways, and it’s faster too.”

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Djed-Hor may have undergone trepanation, a form of brain surgery.

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The latest imaging systems like the Revolution CT* can produce detailed images of the arteries (above) or the skeleton (below).

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*Revolution CT is 510(k) pending at FDA and not available for sale in the U.S. Not yet CE market, not available for sale in all regions.