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A Peek Beneath A Mummy's Wrappers, Powered By CT Scanners


Did you hear the one about the mummy who went to the hospital? Don't get all wrapped up trying to figure out the punch line, this is no joke. It's part of some groundbreaking research that will be on display at London's British Museum next month. The team there is using CT scans to uncover the ancient secrets of mummies.

John Taylor is curator at the British Museum. And he joined me earlier today to explain.

JOHN TAYLOR: So, in fact, we take the mummies to hospitals and we put them through the scanners there, after working hours so we don't take the scanners away from patients who need them. And we've been able to capture astonishingly clear images of the bodies inside the wrappings.

CORNISH: Now, tell us a little bit about one of these mummies where you've learned new details.

TAYLOR: One of the most interesting mummies is that of a woman named Tamut. We know she was a chantreuse, a singer in the Temple of Karnak, a temple at Modern Luxor in Egypt. And the scans of this mummy have shown an incredible detail: the face of Tamut, we can see her hair and we can see her fingernails and toenails all incredibly well-preserved.

And we've learned a lot about her state of health as well. We've discovered that she suffered from fat deposits in her arteries, which could possibly have led to her death. It might have led to heart attack or a stroke. So it seems as though she might have either had this genetic predisposition or it could be she had a high fat diet.

CORNISH: When you first saw one of these scans, what was that like for you? I mean, can you remember what was going through your mind?

TAYLOR: It's an amazing revelation because I've worked in the museum now for 25 years. And I've worked with these mummies and studied them for a long, long time, and then suddenly, you look at a computer screen and you see the person inside and you've never seen that face before. That is a very powerful moment because it really brings you very close to someone who lived 3,000 years ago.

CORNISH: Were there any scans where you and other researchers were kind of peering at them and going, what the heck is that, and like, seeing some unexpected item?

TAYLOR: We've seen a lot of things which have puzzled us. One of the mummies actually has a tool inside its skull. And, of course, the standard procedure was for the embalmer to remove the brain before the body was wrapped up. And they would do that by pushing a metal rod up the nose and then pull the brain down through the nostril. It's a pretty revolting concept. But very few of the tools that they used to do that have ever been found.

And when we were looking at one of our images, we saw a long rod lying there in the base of this man's skull and we realized that this must be one of the embalmer's tools which broken off during the operation and he'd left it behind.

CORNISH: Now, how does this change things for your museum and others?

TAYLOR: Well, what is exciting about this is that up till now, we've only really been able to get this kind of information from individual case studies. Maybe one mummy has been scanned and facts have been collected. But what we're looking for now is to compare mummies from different periods, different parts of Egypt and get a real sense of how the population was composed.

CORNISH: John Taylor. He's a curator at the British Museum in London. Thank you so much for speaking with us.

TAYLOR: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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