Modern Autopsies for Ancient Egyptian Mummies

Curators and radiologists giving the third- or fourth-century B.C. mummy Pet-Menekh a CT scan at Washington University Medical Center in St. Louis. Photo: Robert Boston, courtesy CBS St. Louis.
Curators and radiologists giving the third- or fourth-century B.C. mummy Pet-Menekh a CT scan at Washington University Medical Center in St. Louis. Photo: Robert Boston, courtesy CBS St. Louis.

A trio of ancient Egyptian mummies got a taste of modern medicine this weekend, as curators from the St. Louis Art Museum sent them over to radiology at the Center for Advanced Medicine at the Washington University Medical Center in St. Louis, reports the local CBS affiliate.

Together, curators and radiologists examined the three mummies, which date to between 300 and 1,300 B.C., sending them through a computerized tomography (CT) scanner. The process offered a closer look at the remains in order to explore what may have killed the ancient Egyptians so many years ago.

“All three mummies were very different, and we were surprised by the things we saw in all three of them,” Washington University radiologist Michelle Miller-Thomas told CBS.

One of the mummies proved to be quite unusual. Wearing a beaded ceremonial headdress, the female mummy was younger than her companions, and appeared to have suffered a severe head injury that led to her death. Intriguingly, her brain was still intact. “For the mummification process,” explained Miller-Thomas, “traditionally . . . brains were removed from the mummies.”

Miller-Thomas also speculated that the shortest of the three specimens, a male mummy, may have had his spine severely broken by grave robbers some time after his burial.

A more in-depth project at London’s British Museum turned the results of similar CT scans into incredibly detailed interactive 3D imagery that allows visitors to “unwrap” the mummies, layer by layer (see “Peek Inside Mummies’ Sarcophagi in New British Museum Show“). The St. Louis Art Museum’s Egyptian collection recently made headlines when it was ruled that the institution could keep a 3,200-year-old mummy mask that may have been stolen from the Egyptian government (see “Curse of the Mummy’s Mask Lifts in St. Louis“).


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