Windows into Ancient Lives

Three distinguished St. Louis residents arrive for checkups, offering enduring lessons in art, science and humanity.

By Michael C. Purdy

Video: "Under the Wraps: Modern Medicine Meets Egyptian Mummies"

The School of Medicine recently teamed up with the Saint Louis Art Museum and Washington University’s Mildred Lane Kemper Art Museum to scan some very unusual patients: three Egyptian mummies.

One of the mummies, Amen-Nestawy-Nakht, an Egyptian priest from 900 BC, is owned by the Saint Louis Art Museum. The other two mummies — Pet-Menekh, a priest from the 3rd or 4th century, BC, and Henut-Wedjebu, a female from the 13th century BC — belong to Kemper Art Museum but are on long-term loan to the Saint Louis Art Museum. 

The Saint Louis Art Museum is preparing for a reinstallation of the mummies, and curators there thought computerized tomography (CT) scans might provide information about the mummies and their societies. 

Art movers carefully transported the mummies across Forest Park to the Center for Advanced Medicine, where they were scanned one by one. 

Among the early findings: One of the mummies, the female, already was known to have a brain, but scans revealed she also still has lungs. Typically, the brain and lungs were removed before burial. 

Radiologists with the university’s Mallinckrodt Institute of Radiology discovered that the same mummy also has an array of small objects around her head. She appears to be wearing a headdress or embellished shroud, but it’s also possible that she is surrounded by packing material or debris. 

The scientists were surprised to find that a second mummy appeared to be significantly shorter than his sarcophagus. Further scanning revealed that his head had been dislodged from his body, perhaps when grave robbers ransacked his tomb. They found an item on his chest that may have been a burial amulet missed by grave robbers. They are using the scanning data to reconstruct the item with a 3-D printer. 

Mummies are incredible time capsules from human societies that vanished thousands of years ago. Opening their capsules, however, would
desecrate the human remains and possibly destroy unique cultural treasures. Modern medical imaging techniques offer ways to peer into these time
capsules without physically opening them. 

Scientists scanned Amen-Nestawy-Nakht two decades ago, but imaging technology has advanced significantly since then.

For the new study, a team of School of Medicine and hospital volunteers used a powerful and recently installed CT scanner. The unit uses X-rays to virtually slice a solid object, producing detailed 3-D images of its interior.

The logistics of getting the mummies from the art museum to Washington University Medical Center and into the scanners were very complicated, acknowledged Sanjeev Bhalla, MD, professor of radiology and chief of cardiothoracic imaging. But, Bhalla said, another aspect of the project was just as challenging: “It was very important for us to remember that these were human beings we were scanning.”

Bhalla said the project was a team-building exercise, an opportunity for people from many disciplines to collaborate together.  “We had to do the scanning in an atmosphere of spiritual and physical respect and, with the help of museum staff who acted as a kind of surrogate family for the mummies, we did that,” he said.



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