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A Night Out Of The Museum: X-Ray Vision Takes The Wraps Off Mysterious Mummies

Night reigned in Madrid, Spain, when medical staff wheeled four patients through the doors of Quirónsalud University Hospital. Stretched out on gurneys, their gaunt, desiccated bodies slid quietly through the still, empty corridors. The workers wanted to keep the visit under the wraps. Mummies, after all, can give the living the shivers.

Haunting, however, was not on the schedule. Archeologists from the Spanish National Museum of Archeology wanted to learn more about the mummies, and doctors at the hospital agreed to help by taking a closer look with their computed tomography (CT) machine. “For the first time in my career, I performed a CT scan on a mummy,” said Dr. Vicente Martínez de Vega, head of the radiology department at Quirónsalud Madrid. “It’s not often we get such opportunity as radiologists.”

Specifically, they wanted to know who these mummies were, how they died, and how they became mummified. The archeologists knew that of the four mummies, three were from Egypt and one was a member of the “Guanche,” an ancestral population from the Canary Islands located off the western coast of Morocco. Both places are known for their hot weather, and the people who lived there were known for burying their loved ones in caves, where the mix of low humidity and stable temperatures mummified their bodies.

Like many who are getting on in years, the mummies recently admitted for tests at Quirónsalud University Hospital in Madrid had brittle bones in need of a doctor’s assessment. Using a CT scanner developed by GE Healthcare, radiologists — at the behest of the Spanish National Museum of Archeology — looked for fractures and for clues about the mummies’ age, sex, height and clothing. GIF credit: GE Healthcare. Image credit: RTVE. 

It took a 15-person team eight hours and a special truck to move the mummies from museum to hospital. They had to solve challenges such as finding the smoothest, least bone-rattling roads to preserve their fragile skeletons intact.

Once inside the hospital, radiologists used a CT scanner developed by GE Healthcare to determine the mummies’ approximate age, sex, height and clothing, and even to look for broken bones.

CT and X-ray machines both rely on radiation to peer inside the body. But CT machines use a narrow, rotating beam of X-rays that images the body in series of thin slices that a computer can later assemble into detailed 3D images, kind of like rebuilding a sliced-up salami. The CT scan is so detailed it can identify amulets and figures placed inside the mummy.

Next, the team spent months analyzing the scans to learn more about their wards. One of the Egyptians was Nespamedu, the Pharaoh Imhotep’s high priest. The radiology study uncovered 25 hidden pieces of adornments and amulets under his bandages representing four sons of the powerful god Horus and Thoth, the god of knowledge, and many other things.

Researchers confirmed that the other two Egyptian mummies were female. One was 20 to 35 years old and pregnant; she lived between 7 and 9 B.C. The other was approximately 35 to 50 years old.

The study also revealed that the Guanche specimen was mummified in a different way than its Egyptian cousins: It still contained its bowels.

Researchers have been using GE CT and X-ray machines to virtually unwrap mummies for nearly 80 years. They allowed them to learn more about the people beneath the bandages, and even to determine fakes. As the technology gets better, scientists gain sharper insights. Recently 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 near Luxor, who lived between the years 1069 and 945 B.C.

For the doctors at the hospital in Madrid, it was an unforgettable opportunity. “It was certainly unusual to spend a whole night with mummies in an empty hospital,” de Vega said. “Mummies don’t move, so that makes them relatively cooperative patients.”

The original version of this story appears on GE Healthcare’s news site, The Pulse.

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