Experts hoping second CT scan unlocks Spurlock mummy's secrets

Experts hoping second CT scan unlocks Spurlock mummy's secrets

URBANA — The first time a CT scan was done on a 2,000-year-old Egyptian mummy from the Spurlock Museum at the University of Illinois, medical technology wasn't sharp enough to help solve some of the mysteries about the body inside.

Now, experts are hoping today's more advanced CT-scanning equipment will help answer some of the vexing questions that remain.

Such as: Is this mummy, already determined to be a child, a girl or a boy? And what was the cause of death?

A new CT scan, done Tuesday at Carle Foundation Hospital, will help provide the first three-dimensional, noninvasive look beneath the ancient wrappings since 1990.

For project leader Sarah Wisseman of the Illinois State Archaeological Survey, this second CT scan and the virtual reconstruction that will follow is as exciting as the first one.

"This mummy, even though I first met it 20 years ago, continues to come back and haunt us in various ways," she said.

The reason for the new CT scan is the availability of updated technology and more software for three-dimensional reconstruction that may be able to help researchers learn much more about this mummy than they could 20 years ago, Wisseman said.

Earlier X-rays, CT-images and reconstruction answered some questions: Evidence confirmed the mummy represented a typical embalming for a well-to-do person of 100 A.D., Wisseman said.

Other things learned in those earlier studies: The child's age range was estimated to be from 7 to 9, the lungs and heart were still in place, and there was a skull fracture and rolled-up piece of linen under the head along with a board, she said.

But there wasn't a pool of blood beneath the head, so was this a fracture that happened after death? Gender has also remained a mystery for this mummy because the pelvis wasn't sufficiently developed to say in earlier scans if it was a girl or a boy, Wisseman said.

"My husband calls it Lazarus," she adds. "If we find out it's a girl, we'll have to change the name."

Some other questions she hopes the CT scan will help answer:

Was there trauma or disease during the child's lifetime?

How many organs are still in the body?

Were the hands bandaged separately?

What packing materials were used by the embalmers to make the mummy appear more lifelike?

With live patients, a CT scan, or computed tomography, combines powerful X-rays and computers to help doctors diagnose diseases and stage surgeries. For a mummy, the same technology can accomplish a virtual unwrapping for a nondestructive look inside a corpse.

David Hunt, a museum specialist from the Smithsonian Institute, said there have been hundreds of mummies run through CT scanners in the last couple of decades.

And not just human mummies animal mummies, too, said Hunt, a University of Illinois graduate who once worked at the Spurlock Museum when he was a student and came to assist with the mummy scanning last night.

Dr. Joseph Barkmeier, medical director for diagnostic services at Carle, was involved in both the first CT scan of the mummy and the second one last night.

Today's CT scanners provide much better resolution and finer detail than scanners 20 years ago, he said.

When dealing with live patients, the radiation level of a CT scan has to be kept to the minimum-effective level for safety's sake, Barkmeier said. But for the mummy, maximum radiation could be used to get the most detail.

Carle provided the CT scan as a donation to the research.

"For me, it's a lot of fun because I know the technical aspects of CTs," Barkmeier said. "I don't know anything about mummies."

Any new information about this mummy will be kept under wraps until November, Wisseman said.

At that time, the findings of the medical and archeological specialists will be presented in a public lecture and panel discussion to showcase the mummy as part of the Spurlock Museum's centennial-year celebration.

You can read more about the Spurlock Museum mummy project at

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