SANTA ANA, Calif. – This much experts know: One was a priest from a wealthy family. Another was a young girl who sang during religious rituals. A third was a child, buried in a finely carved wooden coffin.
But there is much more to learn about the six Egyptian mummies that were wrapped and buried in strips of resin-encrusted linen thousands of years ago to protect them from the elements.
Using 21st century medical technology, curators and radiologists in Southern California are examining the relics of the ancient world on loan from the British Museum to learn more of their secrets.
"It’s a virtual autopsy," said Dr. Linda Sutherland, a radiologist who has volunteered her services for the project. "We get to see what’s inside the mummy without destroying it."
The project is preparation for "Mummies: Death and the Afterlife in Ancient Egypt," a Bowers Museum exhibit that opens on April 17. It features some 140 objects from the British Museum, which has the largest collection of Egyptian antiquities outside Egypt.
Researchers at Bowers hope their scans will add to what has already been learned about the mummies from archaeological analysis and standard X-rays. They believe it’s the largest collection of CT scans ever performed on Egyptian mummies using the latest scanning technology.
All six mummies are believed to be 2,000 to 3,000 years old. On Wednesday, team members carried them to a tractor trailer parked behind the Bowers Museum in Santa Ana, where each was subjected to the powerful, rotating X-ray detectors of a mobile CT scanner.
In a live human, a CT scan can pinpoint infections, tumors, fractures, internal bleeding and developmental problems such as curved spines. With mummies, however, there is little left except dried skin and bones, so there’s no guarantee the process will yield a definitive cause of death.
On Thursday, the researchers announced their initial findings. Dental analysis showed the child previously thought to be about 18 months old was at least 4 when its body was compressed to fit into a coffin. They also found the body of a man from 700 B.C. had been crushed at the time of burial and a wooden pole had been placed in his chest in an apparent attempt to correct the problem.
The radiologists and curators will analyze the images further in the next several months in search of more information, said Daniel Weissberg, chairman of MRD Inc., the radiology practice that donated its services to the project.
Last month, experts in Egypt announced that a CT scan conducted on King Tut contradicted two theories of his death, showing he wasn’t murdered by a blow to the head and that his chest wasn’t crushed in an accident.
The analysis of Tutankhamun didn’t establish a cause of death but it did yield his age as 19 and other previously unknown details.
Archaeologists have been able to make some conclusions about the six mummies in the Bowers exhibit based on archaeological evidence. The gilded plaster face mask and ornate, beaded vest on the one known as Irthorru suggest he was a priest. Others, such as the wooden coffin of the child, are more mysterious.
The thousands of CT images should provide more clues to how these ancients lived and died as well as more information about the mummification process.
"It will tell us more about what is inside those wrappings than anything else we’ve done before," said Nigel Strudwick, a British Museum curator who supervised the operation.