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February 16, 2015

Researchers collaborate to discover new information on mummies

Chicago is currently witnessing the alliance of three powerhouse institutions: the University of Chicago Medical Center, the Oriental Institute, and the Art Institute of Chicago. Since last February, Egyptologists and radiologists at these prominent facilities have been working together with the latest computerized tomographic (a technique of mapping the human body using x-ray or ultrasound) technology to shed new light on two of the Art Institute’s ancient mummies. Representatives of these institutions shared their surprising findings at a Classical Art Society presentation and panel hosted at the Art Institute last Thursday. The panel’s title? The Mummy is a Daddy.

The panel featured three speakers: Mary Greul, Elizabeth McIlvaine assistant curator of ancient art at the Art Institute; Emily Teeter, egyptologist at the Oriental Institute Museum; and Michael Vannier, professor of radiology at the University of Chicago.

Greul kicked off the presentation with a quick history of the two mummies, explaining how the famous Charles Hutchinson and Martin A. Ryerson originally donated Paankhenamun and Wenuhotep, the mummies, to the Art Institute in the early 1900s. In 1941, the Art Institute loaned Wenuhotep to the Oriental Institute, and the mummy then left in 1959 to go on display at the Children’s Museum of Indianapolis. In 2007, the mummy returned to its home in Chicago.

Teeter assumed the podium next, leading the audience through the methods and analysis of mummification. The mummy’s physical encasement—the coffin—discloses vast amounts of information about the human preserved inside, their family (recording up to 26 generations back), and their social status. The style of the coffin anchors the mummy in a certain time period, sometimes linking it to a particular city or even to a single mummification workshop.

If researchers can gather so much information from the mummy’s coffin, why, you may wonder, is C.T. scanning necessary?

Not only do these images give researches insight into the amulets and other treasures encased within the coffins,; they also allow researchers to make further inferences about characteristics like the health, diet, and wealth of the mummy. Bones shown to be wrapped in many layers of linen, for example, reveal a mummy’s elevated social status, for linen was expensive in ancient Egypt.

Imagine the confusion when evidence garnered from the outer coffin conflicts with data collected by C.T. scans—when, say, the mummy’s crossed arms indicate a mummification date later than the period suggested by the style of the coffin. How could this be? The ancient Egyptians were cheap: They reused coffins.

“This process of [using] nondestructive imaging of mummies has added a completely new weapon to the arsenal of Egyptologists..” Teeter said. “These days when anybody enters in the study of mummies it’s going to include Egyptologists, radiologists, physical anthropologists, historians, dentists, and it’s really through these large groups of interdisciplinary experts that you can tease a tremendous amount of information out of these specimen.”

Vannier affirmed this revolutionary power of radiology when he projected scans from both 1982 and 2014 for the audience to see. The conclusion was clear: The 1982 basic x-ray was informative yet primitive compared to the latest C.T. scan’s higher image quality.

What is it that these C.T. scans of Wenuhotep showed that earlier x-rays could not? A penis. It turns out that Wenuhotep, literally the model for distinguishing mummy gender, was actually male.

The shocks didn’t stop there. The audience also had the chance to gaze into the hauntingly brilliant eyes of the beautiful, fleshy-faced Menesamun—a woman thousands-of-years-dead. Thanks to enhanced C.T. scanning, artists and researchers can now more accurately reconstruct the faces and bodies of mummies—without ever opening the coffin.

Teeter commented on the projected image of the facial reconstruction, proclaiming to the audience, “It’s not speculation, it’s based on the forensic evidence. We actually had another police sketch artist offer to do a reconstruction—a completely different style of course—but using the same data, and the results were very, very similar.”

All throughout the presentation, Greuel, Teeter, and Vannier sought to remind the audience that these mummies were and are people. They walked. They talked. They were embalmed. Seeing the faces of these incredibly lifelike humans staring back off of the screen, the presentation took on dramatically new meaning.

In collaborating on the study of these two mummies, the University of Chicago Medical Center, the Oriental Institute, and the Art Institute of Chicago are not just spending thousands and taking fancy pictures. They are endeavoring to reconstruct the lives of two very real human beings and are, in the process, learning more about the intricacies of an entire culture.

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