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The Mummy Inside

2 July 2004 (All day)
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Nesperennub, inside and out. The 3000-year-old mummy of the Egyptian priest is the subject of a virtual display at the British Museum.

LONDON--The secrets of a 3000-year-old Egyptian mummy and his fumble-fingered embalmers are coming to light for the first time, thanks to 3D visualization technology. A combination of medical scanning and supercomputing is giving scientists and museum visitors a warts-and-all virtual tour inside the mummy's casing.

Hieroglyphics on the coffin of a mummy buried at Thebes in 800 B.C.E. and brought to the British Museum here in 1899 revealed that he was an important priest named Nesperennub. To find out more, scientists needed to study the body beneath the bandages and brightly painted linen-and-plaster casing. But unwrapping mummies is a destructive and irreversible process, so they sought a noninvasive alternative, says curator John Taylor.

The solution came 2 years ago when Taylor teamed up with David Hughes, a visualization specialist at Silicon Graphics Inc. (SGI) in Reading, U.K. They first scanned Nesperennub's body, still sealed in its casing, using computed tomography (CT) and medical lasers. Then an SGI supercomputer reassembled the 1500 scanned images into a virtual mummy. CT scans have been used on mummies before, says Taylor, but this is the first time they've been knitted into a fully interactive, 3D image. The technology--previously used in oil exploration and to view the inside workings of the human body (Science, 26 February 1999, p. 1223)--allows researchers to virtually remove different layers of the mummy's wrappings, rotate the image, and even look inside his bones, Hughes explains.

Close inspection of the virtual Nesperennub reveals that he was probably a man in his 40s, judging by his worn teeth, fused skull bones, and slightly arthritic spine. Broken bones in his nose attest to the grisly embalming practice of removing the brain through the nostrils with a hooked probe. A tiny pit on the inside of Nesperennub's skull may bear testament to a brain tumor or tuberculosis, says Taylor. Most curious, though, is a clay bowl resting on Nesperennub's head. "The bowl is something we've never seen on other mummies" and is too crude to have any religious significance, says Taylor. He suspects it was used to catch the embalmer's resin and accidentally got stuck. Surrounding tears in Nesperennub's skin suggest that the embalmers tried to pry the bowl off, never imagining their blunder would be discovered 3000 years later.

"We were able to find a tremendous amount of information from this one individual," says Taylor, who estimates that 60 of the museum's 100 mummies would be suitable for the same treatment.

Related sites
The exhibition of Nesperennub at the British Museum
More about the mummy project from Silicon Graphics Inc.
The Virtual Mummy at the University of Hamburg
Information on Egyptian mummies from the Smithsonian Institution
More about mummies, from the University of Michigan

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