Mummy see, mummy do

April 18, 2005

This week, the Bowers Museum in Santa Ana, CA, will open an exhibition featuring six mummies, each one thousands of years old. Their lives and deaths will be annotated, in part, with information gathered using a 16-slice CT scanner.

This week, the Bowers Museum in Santa Ana, CA, will open an exhibition featuring six mummies, each one thousands of years old. Their lives and deaths will be annotated, in part, with information gathered using a 16-slice CT scanner.

The images will support current and future investigations into how these people lived, their age, health, cause of death, and how their bodies were preserved.

This is the second time this year CT has provided a glimpse into the ancient past. In January, the mummy of Tutankhamen was removed from its tomb in the Valley of the Kings. The fragile remains - resting in a tray of sand - were carried to a mobile CT scanner brought to the site in a trailer.

Some 35 years earlier, a radiographic examination inside the tomb had revealed a bone chip in the Pharoah's skull. That, along with scientific results indicating hurried mummification and burial, led to speculation that Tutankhamen was killed by a blow to the head.

The 2005 scan, conducted on a six-slice CT, produced 1700 images that ruled out this murder theory. In a real life drama of Indiana Jones meets "CSI," Egyptian, Italian, and Swiss scientists determined that the two bone fragments loose in the skull could not have been caused by an injury prior to death. The scientific team matched those pieces to the fractured cervical vertebra and foramen magnum, believing them to have broken during the embalming process or by the people who first discovered the tomb in 1928.

A different fracture uncovered by the scan, this one in the left leg, however, may have been related to King Tut's death. Evidence of an open wound associated with the fracture and reports by the discoverers of the tomb that the left kneecap was loose, in concert with these recent findings, suggest the young king may have badly broken his leg, leading to a wound and infection that claimed his life.

The appeal of noninvasive imaging for Egyptologists is as commanding as it is for physicians. And, if you're going to pick a modality, CT is it. Forget about MR, as there's not much soft tissue to examine. Functional imaging is out - or at least one would hope so.

The use of CT, however, serves to point out the enormous advantages of modern applications. While I have seen stories of mummy scans in the past, even seen a scan done of a mummified head some years ago during a press conference, I had pretty much written them off as parlor tricks - interesting, but of minor significance. Now it seems things have changed.

CT is solving ancient mysteries. Results from the CT study of King Tut will be presented as part of an upcoming "National Geographic Special." The power of CT will be obvious to anyone tuning in. And more such results may be on the way.

The CT trailer used to examine the boy pharoah will be used in Egypt for the next three to five years to scan other mummies. Each time results are released, the public will have another chance to marvel at the power of modern imaging.