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High-tech gear reveals mummy's secrets

Researchers at Stanford, SGI and a San Jose museum reveal the innards of an Egyptian mummy, without unwrapping it. Photos: Mummy's secrets revealed

Daniel Terdiman Former Senior Writer / News
Daniel Terdiman is a senior writer at CNET News covering Twitter, Net culture, and everything in between.
Daniel Terdiman
4 min read
MOUNTAIN VIEW, Calif.--Before an eager audience of academics, Egyptologists, technologists and other onlookers, a 2,000-year-old girl had her official coming out party Wednesday.

The crowd had gathered at SGI's Reality Center at the Silicon Graphics headquarters here for the virtual unwrapping of Sherit, a child mummy from the collection of San Jose's Rosicrucian Egyptian Museum. And by the end of the event, those on hand had seen deep into the interior of the mummy.

Mummy's secrets revealed

The event was noteworthy because it was the first time the public had been able to peek through a mummy's wrappings and see the body inside with such a high degree of detail.

In May, a team of scientists from the Rosicrucian museum, SGI and Stanford University had performed 60,000 scans of the child mummy using an AXIOM Siemens scanner. Then, using an SGI Prism visualization platform comprised of 25 processors running software from Germany's Volume Graphics, the team produced a 92 gigabyte database of digital images of the long-dead child, each of which portrayed a sliver of the mummy no thicker than a business card.

And to those who did the painstaking work of the 60,000 scans of Sherit's tightly wrapped body, Wednesday was the culmination of months of work providing a unique view of the past and a promising look at the future.

"We are looking back today 2,000 years," said Bob Bishop, SGI's chairman and CEO. "The very latest technology of today gives us a glimpse of society 2,000 years ago. For this child mummy, in a noninvasive way, we are able to glimpse her whole lifestyle."

Though such advances in research would always be likely to excite Egyptologists, the work is most notable for what it augurs for the future. According to several researchers at the event, the scanning technology promises a whole new era for the study of the dead.

"Looking back, the same tools enable us to look forward," Bishop said. "Virtual autopsies will give us the ability to look forensically into a human body of today with great accuracy and great detail in a noninvasive manner."

Sherit--a name given the mummy by the researchers, meaning "little one"--first came to the museum 75 years ago. It's thought she was between four and six when she died, though no one knows where she came from. Museum personnel had always assumed the child was female, but they'd never known for sure.

They also knew little of her provenance, other than that she had died roughly 2,000 years ago.

By running Sherit through the scans, however, the team was able to discover a huge amount of information about her--information, in fact, that should keep scientists busy for some time.

"So much data was collected," said Lisa Schwappach-Shirriff, the Rosicrucian museum's curator, "We will honestly be looking at this data and scans for 10 to 20 years."

Wednesday's event was a feast of visual images for the crowd, beginning with an opportunity to view the actual mummy, which lay on its back under a soft golden light in an otherwise darkly lit room. From there, the crowd moved into SGI's Reality Center for a lengthy presentation about the team's findings.

Afshad Mistri, the mummy project manager, explained how scientists were able to discover the method in which Sherit--who the team discovered had died suddenly after a largely healthy childhood--was mummified. He described how the embalmer had preserved her organs and then wrapped her in layers of linen, glue and plaster.

Throughout the presentation, the audience was treated to highly detailed digital views of the interior of the mummy, including close-ups of her skeletal structure, her teeth and the inner layers of her wrapping.

The team was even able to tell--all without ever physically breaching the interior of the mummy--that the embalmer had been right-handed. They did this by examining the angle at which the hole for removing Sherit's organs had been cut.

From that, said Schwappach-Shirriff, the team was able to discover a great deal of information that would, in the past, never have been known without physically cutting the mummy open.

For example, in the interior layers of the wrapping, the team discovered the imprints of a series of jewelry: an amulet on her forehead, a set of earrings, and a small, Roman-era beaded necklace.

In addition, there were hieroglyphics on the interior of the wrapping that identify Sherit's parents' names, her own name and what they did with their lives.

"I've never seen anything like this," Schwappach-Shirriff said. "What this means for Egyptology, for all those (mummies) who are anonymous, is that there is hope we will be able to tell their stories."

Afterward, beaming, she explained that she and her team feel that in addition to producing great science, they've given Sherit an identity after 2,000 years of complete anonymity.

"We've brought her back to life," Schwappach-Shirriff said. "We're resurrected her. Her parents would be thrilled."