The Tradition of Using Medical Imaging

Even in antiquity, mummies were a source of fascination, described in some detail by Greek historians visiting Egypt as early as the fifth century BC. During medieval times, mummies were highly valued by both Arab and European doctors for medicinal purposes, being ground into powder for the treatment of a wide variety of illnesses. By the sixteenth century, demand for ground mummy was so great in Europe that entrepreneurs in Alexandria were producing fake mummies, using the bodies of recently deceased criminals. Few visitors to Egypt felt a need to preserve or study the seemingly endless number of mummies found in the giant cemeteries at Saqqara and Thebes.

The expedition of Napoleon at the start of the nineteenth century introduced mummies to a far wider audience, with the establishment of the prominent European museum collections and the greater accessibility of Egypt to wealthy tourists. These tourists often returned with mummies purchased as exotic souvenirs.

Mummies even became the focus of social events, public unwrappings that were all the rage among the Victorian elite, but which rarely had any scientific value.

By the 1820s, though, a more scholarly approach was being applied in some instances. The 20th Dynasty mummy of a man named Nesamun was unwrapped by scientists in Leeds, England in 1828, the first truly methodical examination of an ancient Egyptian mummy. Thomas Pettigrew produced the first scholarly publication on the subject, History of Egyptian Mummies, in 1834, providing, for the time, a remarkable analysis of the mummification process.

Regardless of their scientific method or value, the majority of these early examinations of Egyptian mummies resulted in damaging the bodies. It was not until the discovery of X-rays in 1895 that a non-destructive means of studying mummies would be developed. Only one year later, in 1896, the new technology was applied to a group of mummies in Frankfurt, Germany. From that point on, the technique would become an increasingly common and useful tool for Egyptologists.

The first analysis of a royal mummy took place in 1903, when the body of Thutmose IV was examined with the only X-ray machine in Cairo, in a private nursing facility. By the 1920s, X-rays had become the standard means of locating amulets contained within the mummy wrappings in addition to identifying diseases.

The first comprehensive X-ray studies were conducted during the 1950s by the Liverpool and Manchester Museums. Perhaps the best-known analysis of Egyptian mummies is the joint project of the Universities of Michigan and Alexandria conducted in the 1970s, focusing on the royal mummies in the Cairo Museum, and particularly their dentition. In addition to dental problems, X-rays allow scholars to distinguish fractures and traumatic wounds. Arthritis, and specifically osteoarthritis, is the most common ailment identifiable through X-ray examination.

In more recent years, X-ray investigation has been augmented by another non-destructive technique: computed axial tomography, or CT, scanning.This method, described by one Egyptologist as an "X-ray in the round," involves moving the X-ray film and the source of the rays in opposite directions simultaneously. The resulting pictures are essentially "slices" of the body, which are combined to create a three dimensional image. Technicians are able to vary the number of slices viewed, their thickness, and how long the computer spends analyzing them. Unlike X-rays, CT-scans allow observation of differences in the density of internal structures as well as structures superimposed upon one another. These features provide information regarding internal organs and soft tissues not available from X-ray images. In addition, the most up-to-date CT technology even allows a "virtual" tour through the body, without damaging the mummified remains.

In 1999, the Michael C. Carlos Museum acquired the Charlotte Lichirie Collection of Ancient Egyptian Art from a small private museum in Canada, including nine mummies ranging in date from the New Kingdom (ca. 1539-1075 BC) to the Roman Period (ca. 30 BC-AD 642). The collection has provided an exceptional opportunity for interdisciplinary communication as well as scientific testing of ancient remains.

X-ray and CT analyses performed on all nine mummies at Emory University Hospital between October 1999 and May 2001 continue a tradition of medical investigation dating to the inception of the University's archaeological collection. Theology professor William Shelton acquired the core of the Egyptian collection in 1920, including a male mummy of the late Ptolemaic Period (ca. 167-30 BC), which was X-rayed in 1926.

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