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CT Scans Reveal Surprises About Wash U And Saint Louis Art Museum's Egyptian Mummies

Barnes-Jewish Hospital had some unusual “patients” on Sunday: three ancient Egyptian mummies.

Washington University radiologists put each mummy through a CT scanner, which uses X-rays to “see” through the mummies’ wrappings, and high-powered computing to generate detailed, 3-D images of the tissues, bones and organs underneath.

The mummies were already X-rayed in the late '60s, and two were CT-scanned in the '90s.

But Sanjeev Bhalla, the lead Washington University radiologist on the project, said the new, much higher-resolution scans have already revealed some surprises.

For example, an earlier report about one of the male mummies, Pet-Menekh, described his urinary bladder and heart. "We couldn’t find either one of them in the new scan," Bhalla said. "So it’s interesting because the new technology, with the ability to make all sorts of images in different planes, is going to allow us to better understand some of the things about these mummies and refute some of the statements about the mummies that have been made in the past."

Another unexpected finding, said Michelle Miller-Thomas, a Wash U neuroradiologist, related to the only female mummy, Henut-Wedjebu. She has a skull fracture.

"The pattern of the skull fracture was such that it suggests it was great force that caused the skull fracture," Miller-Thomas said. "It fractured in a way that we only see in living patients with very severe head trauma."

Miller-Thomas says it will take more analysis to try to figure out whether that trauma happened before or after death.

One of the mummies, a male priest named Amen-Nestawy-Nakht dating back to the ninth or 10th century B.C.E., belongs to the Saint Louis Art Museum. The two others, Pet-Menekh, also a priest from the fourth or third century B.C.E., and Henut-Wedjebu, an upper-class woman dating back to the 13th century B.C.E., belong to Washington University's Mildred Lane Kemper Art Museum but are on long-term loan to the Saint Louis Art Museum.

Lisa Çakmak, the museum's assistant curator of ancient art, said she wants to incorporate the CT scans into a new Egyptian gallery that the museum plans to open in 2016.

“I want people to come to our new installation and be able to interact with the CT scans, whether it’s through touchscreen or some sort of iPad app," Çakmak said. "But we want people to be able to see the pictures that we just saw."

The scans are expected to provide new information about the diets, lifestyles, and health of these three ancient Egyptians, based, among other things, on the condition of their teeth, bones and arteries.

The final results should be available in early December.

Karen Butler, an associate curator at the Kemper, called mummies an unusual combination of art object and human individual. "Hopefully through art historical research and medical science you can bring together a kind of new understanding," Butler said. "That would be really exciting."

Follow Véronique LaCapra on Twitter: @KWMUScience