Saturday, April 2, 2011


A wrapped body from antiquity is the ultimate mystery. We don’t know who is inside, how he or she lived or died, what the story is behind it. Unwrapping it, either with a surgical knife or virtually using a computer, is like Christmas for archaeologists and physical anthropologists.

Twenty years ago, we CT scanned an Egyptian mummy from our University of Illinois museum. Using medical imaging is wonderful because it doesn’t harm the artifact—you can obtain a lot of information without cutting the mummy open to look inside the wrappings. In 1990, we used a huge, expensive university supercomputer to do a “virtual autopsy.” Now the software is so accessible that you can download it and “unwrap” the mummy on a personal laptop. Then you can trim the images, change colors and densities, and rotate them in three-dimensions.

The first time around, X-rays and CT scans revealed that our mummy was a child, maybe 8 years old at the time of death. Physical anthropologists can age bodies by looking at growth plates at the end of the long bones and the teeth: our child showed adult teeth coming in right behind baby teeth and open growth plates. Here are some of the early pictures:

My husband calls this little mummy Lazarus because it keeps coming back. After our real-life adventure 20 years ago, I wrote my first mystery, Bound for Eternity, based on the mummy investigation. It will take us weeks of work to go through the hundreds of images and actually understand the new data. Since I am crazy about mummies and love computer toys, I am in heaven.

Here are some pictures of the trip to the hospital:


Sarah U. Wisseman, Ph.D
Web Site

Archaeological mysteries:
author email:

No comments:

Post a Comment