Ancient Mummy Gets Modern CT Scan
February 4, 2013

4,000-Year Old Mummy Undergoes Modern Medical Imaging

Michael Harper for — Your Universe Online

While modern technology often extends our gaze into the future, giving us an idea of what lies on the horizon, it can also allow us to look even deeper into our past. For example, while CT scans are helping medical professionals quickly diagnose and treat their patients today, one museum is using the technology to capture in-depth pictures of a 4,000-year old mummy named Tjeby.

Partnering with a nearby medical imaging center, the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts in Richmond, VA recently sent Tjeby through the scanner in hopes of piecing together any missing aspects of his past. With these new scans, the museum has been able to get a clear view of his bone structure and has even reconstructed the face of the mummy, which was acquired by the museum in 1953. The museum also hopes to use these new 3D images to determine Tjeby´s exact age, diet and even the cause of his death thousands of years ago.

This isn´t the first time that modern imaging technology has been used to go back and investigate the remains of ancient peoples, with the first mummy CT scan dating back to 1977. In fact, this isn´t even the first time that Tjeby has gotten a digital close up. In 1986, the same mummy was run through a similar scanner, though the technology at the time was “primitive” by modern standards, explains Jonathan Elias, director of Akhmim Mummy Studies Consortium in Pennsylvania.

"We're really at the beginning of the process, even with modern technology, to unravel what's gone on in this culture," said Elias. "Compared with 1986, 2013 is just like going to another planet in terms of what we're now able to do."

As one might expect, transporting a 4,000-year old mummy is no easy task. According to AP writer Michael Felderbaum, museum employees first had to remove Tjeby from his preservation material, free him from his tomb and then secure him to a platform using that most wonderful of space-age materials: Velcro. From here, Tjeby was moved into a van and taken for a very slow 15-minute ride to the imaging center. One museum employee even rode in the back with Tjeby to minimize the bumps or sliding which could have occurred during the trip.

Once at the center, museum employees, doctors and technicians hoisted the mummy from his Velcro platform to a gurney and then placed him on the scanning platform. According to Felderbaum, an automated voice — normally intended for living patients undergoing a scan — began to speak to the mummy, asking him to lie still and not breathe during the scan.

“He's the ideal patient, if he only stopped fidgeting," cracked Peter Schertz, the curator of ancient art at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts.

Within seconds of being placed underneath the scanner, the doctors began to see thousands of images of Tjeby, including his internal skeletal structure. The doctors and technicians immediately noticed that several of the bones in his chest cavity had collapsed at some point, likely after he had been mummified. Other parts of his body were in a “jumble,” according to doctors and museum staff.

With these images captured and a 3D-rendering of Tjeby acquired, the museum employees will now set about retracing Tjeby´s history and, hopefully, the history of his world.