CT scans show first X-rayed mummy in new light

Images reveal how far radiography has come in 120 years

mummy image and CT scan

MUMMY MYSTERY  Little was known about this mummified Egyptian child (top) when German physicist Walter Koenig used X-rays to look beneath its wrappings in 1896. Modern CT scans provided a more informative peek, revealing, among other findings, a completely preserved skeleton (bottom).

S. Zesch et al/Euro. J. Radiol. Open 2016

X-rays were the iPhone 7 of the 1890s. Months after X-rays were discovered in late 1895, German physicist Walter Koenig put the latest in tech gadgetry to the test by scanning 14 objects, including the mummified remains of an ancient Egyptian child. Koenig’s image of the child’s knees represented the first radiographic investigation of a mummy.

At the time, details on the mummy itself were scant. Originally collected by explorer-naturalist Eduard Rueppell in 1817, the specimen lacked any sort of decoration that might link it to a particular dynasty or time period. Koenig’s X-ray image of the mummy served less to fill in any of those blanks and more to demonstrate the technology’s potential. Since then, radiographic images have revealed hidden artifacts, elucidated embalming techniques and even pinpointed health issues and diseases in mummies.

The inverted appearance of the mummy’s knees in Koenig’s original X-ray probably happened when Koenig transferred the negative image into a positive. © German Röntgen Museum

Now, biological anthropologist and Egyptologist Stephanie Zesch of the Reiss Engelhorn Museum in Mannheim, Germany, and colleagues have examined the mummy with modern imaging techniques. CT scans show that the child was a boy. His teeth suggest that he was 4 to 5 years old when he died. Radiocarbon dating places him in the Ptolemaic period, between 378 and 235 B.C., the researchers report online July 22 in the European Journal of Radiology Open.

The team also diagnosed a slew of health conditions: a common chest wall deformity called pectus excavatum, or sunken chest; bone density marks called Harris lines in his leg bones that indicate physiological stress; and an enlarged liver. The team attributes the distended liver to a parasitic infection like schistosomiasis, which is common in Egypt and sometimes lethal. Without any obvious signs of trauma, however, “it’s impossible to determine cause of death,” Zesch says.

Even with the all-seeing power of today’s CT scans, the culprit behind the boy’s demise remains under wraps.

More Stories from Science News on Tech

From the Nature Index

Paid Content