UT Imaging radiologists reveal MFAH mummy’s secrets
Wrapped up for 2,000 years in a manner that indicated wealth and love, the mummy was a mystery child.
That changed recently when the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston asked The University of Texas Medical School at Houston’s Department of Diagnostic and Interventional Imaging to perform a computed tomography (CT) scan on the tiny figure.
“The mummy had never been unwrapped,” said Sandra Oldham, M.D., professor of radiology, chief of thoracic imaging and director of residency radiology. “They thought it was a child but didn’t have any other information, and they wanted to know if there were any things in there with the mummy.”
Oldham performed the CT scan at UT Imaging, a freestanding, outpatient diagnostic imaging center located at 6700 W. Loop S., Suite 100.
She is now working on a one-hour lecture on imaging the mummy for UT-Houston medical residents. The museum has updated its description of the mummy and included an image of the scan in the gallery in the atrium on the second level of the Audrey Jones Beck Building, 5601 Main Street.
“The museum is extremely grateful to Dr. Oldham and The University of Texas Medical School for participating in this project,” said Frances Marzio, MFAH curator of the Glassell Collections and antiquities. “This valuable information enhances the museum’s knowledge of this object and allows both institutions to create new educational opportunities.”
The mummy was removed from a curator’s box and gently laid on the table before entering the scanner for the one-minute scan.
While an earlier X-ray indicated the mummy might be a girl because of what appeared to be earrings and an amulet near her head, they weren’t sure because X-rays could not completely penetrate through the mummy’s wrappings.
The CT scan, which gives a three-dimensional view, confirmed the location of two small hoop earrings and a metal density around her neck and under her jaw. “We believe the metal piece is probably an amulet,” said Oldham, referring to the ancient Egyptian practice of placing ornamental charms with the body to protect the person during the journey into the afterlife.
Initially, the child was believed to be about 2 years old. But judging by the number of unerupted teeth and unfused bone ends, Oldham said the child was 3 to 4 years old.
She also detected tiny bone breaks consistent with the age of the mummy, which dates to 30 B.C. to 150 A.D., as it was moved from its original location. None of the long bones of the arms or legs were broken, and there was no indication from the skeleton that the child died from a traumatic injury.
The image also revealed that the child was placed on what appears to be a wooden embalming board, and the layers of cloth used to wrap the child could be delineated where air became trapped between them. The skeleton is approximately 30 inches tall. An exact measurement is impossible because of the effect of compression with mummification.
“I thought it was very interesting,” Oldham said. “I’ve always been interested in Egyptology. I think the scan showed how technology can help reveal details about antiquities without destroying the artifact.”
The mummy, collected by archaeologist J. Deshayes in the early 20th century, is from the Roman period of Egypt and most likely came from the Fayum region of the country. It was in various private collections before coming to the MFAH.
The wrappings of the mummy are painted with gods of the underworld, according to museum experts. Green jackals on the chest represent Anubis, the god of embalming. The color green represents renewal and rebirth while the red object between the jackals represents the child’s heart.
The figures in the painting below the jackals, according to the museum, are goddesses Isis and Nephthys, who raise their hands in a gesture of mourning. It was believed the goddesses would protect and nurture the child, represented by a mummified figure inside a red rectangle, in the underworld.
Ancient Egyptians believed in an afterlife and took great measures to preserve the body. The mummification process took 70 days. The organs, except for the heart, were removed and the body was filled with natron, a natural salt, to dry and preserve it. At the end of the process, the body was bathed in oils and wrapped in many layers of linen.
“We know that her family cared for her very much,” Marzio said. “This is evidenced by the fine linen of her wrappings, the care with which her body has been preserved and padded, the earrings and the amulet, and the images painted on her wrappings, intended to protect her spirit in the afterlife.”
The scan was part of a continuing partnership between the museum and the medical school. Since 2002, the two institutions have collaborated on the Art of Observation, an education program designed to help first- and second-year medical students hone their observation skills for future patients by studying paintings.
Now medical residents, particularly radiology residents, will learn from the oldest patient they’ll probably ever meet.
“Education has to be a bit broader than medicine, so I’ll include some Egyptian history into the lecture,” Oldham said, “We’ll make Renaissance people out of these medics.”
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