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Playing Detective: How GE Imaging Technology Helped Crack 5 Ancient Mysteries

Tomas Kellner
March 22, 2019

First impressions can be misleading. In 1895, when Wilhelm Roentgen trained his cathode ray at his wife’s hand and took what may have been the world’s first human X-ray, she cried out, “I have seen my death!” — or so the story goes.

But Mrs. Roentgen’s reaction was far from a bad omen. Within months Roentgen’s invention had ignited the medical imaging industry. Only a year later, GE engineer Elihu Thomson built an X-ray machine and demonstrated “the use of stereoscopic ‘roentgen’ pictures for diagnosing bone fractures and locating foreign objects in the body,” according to a GE history. After Thomson’s colleague William D. Coolidge invented the modern X-ray tube, the applications of the technology spread beyond the doctor’s office and into industrial labs, where researchers used it to look for defects in metal parts.

Today, GE Healthcare manufactures advanced computed tomography, magnetic resonance, ultrasound and other medical imaging machines that can be found in hospitals all over the world. The parts inspection business, now a unit of Baker Hughes, a GE Company (BHGE), is also going strong. The doctors and engineers who operate the machines have used them to solve many medical and engineering puzzles. But every now and then, they get a call to inspect an object they have never seen before or to solve a thousand-year-old mystery. Take a look:

 width= Computed tomography produces detailed images of the human body. The latest imaging systems like GE’s Revolution CT scanner can deliver stunning images of organs, bones, blood vessels and other body parts. But CT imaging can be also used to peer into the past. Image credit: GE Healthcare.


1. “The Resurrection Of Christ”

 width= The “Resurrection of Christ” inside GE Healthcare’s Revolution CT scanner. The scan revealed details invisible to the human eye. Image credit: Humanitas Group. 

In 2018, Italian conservators used a Revolution CT scanner, typically used to image bones, organs and vessels in great detail, to examine a 15th-century painting that had been kept in a museum storage facility since the 1930s. Originally dismissed as a copy of a work by the Italian master Andrea Mantegna, the scan revealed that the painting is in fact an original Mantegna. The full story is here.


2. A Night Out Of The Museum

 width= Above: With the help of a CT scanner, the Field Museum in Chicago recently discovered that not all the mummies in its collection were cut from the same cloth. Image credit: The Field Museum. Top GIF: One of the Egyptian mummies was Nespamedu. The scans uncovered 25 hidden pieces of adornments and amulets under his bandages.  GIF credit: GE Healthcare. Image credit: RTVE. 

In 2017, a team of radiologists and archeologists in Madrid used a CT scanner image of three Egyptian mummies and one mummy from the Canary Islands. One of the Egyptian mummies was Nespamedu, the pharaoh Imhotep’s high priest. The scans uncovered 25 hidden pieces of adornments and amulets under his bandages. In the United States, an Egyptologist from Emory University scanned the 3,000-year-old remains of a “woman” and discovered that it was actually a male mummy named Ankhefenmut, a priest and sculptor at the Temple of Mut in Luxor who lived between the years 1069 and 945 B.C. A different team in Chicago used the same technology to spot a 3,000-year-old fake of a cat mummy. That story is here.


3. A Mammoth Discovery

 width= Lyuba is considered the world’s best-preserved mammoth mummy. Image credit: GE Healthcare.

Researchers have been using GE scanners to image mummified ancestors at least since 1939, when they imaged mummies for the New York World’s Fair. One team used scanners at the GE Healthcare Institute in Waukesha, Wisconsin, to image Lyuba, a month-old female woolly mammoth calf who drowned 42,000 years ago in a Siberian bog. Lyuba was found in 2007 by a reindeer breeder. She is considered the world’s best-preserved mammoth mummy. See images of Lyuba here.


4. A Great Lakes Mystery

 width= In 2001, diver and history enthusiast Steve Libert found a strange piece of timber sticking out of the muddy bottom of Lake Michigan. He used a GE CT scanner to inspect it. Image credit: Steve Libert/Great Lakes Exploration.

In 2001, diver and history enthusiast Steve Libert found a strange piece of timber sticking out of Lake Michigan’s muddy bottom. Libert has been obsessed with the French ship Le Griffon, which on September 18, 1679, left Lake Michigan’s Green Bay. It was a pleasant day for sailing, but neither the ship nor its crew of six were ever seen again. Libert suspected that the wood he found might be Le Griffon’s bowsprit, the pole that extends out from the front of a sailing ship. Naturally, he pulled it out and stuck it inside a GE CT scanner. Here’s the rest of the story.


5. A Saxon Sword And Ancient Poetry

 width= A CT scan of the Saxon sword and dagger (upper right). Image credit: Lower Saxony State Service for Cultural Heritage, Hannover, Germany.

In 2012, a German conservator used an industrial-grade CT scanner to decode a 1,600-year-old lead scroll smaller than a roll of film. When the scanner “virtually” unrolled the scroll, the team found 41 lines of text written in an ancient language. The same facility, which belongs to BHGE, also probed a 2.5-foot-long eighth-century Saxon sword and a dagger found at a construction site. That story is here.