New clues emerge in 2,200-year-old case

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PHILADELPHIA – When she was rediscovered three decades ago, in a darkened storage area at Philadelphia’s Academy of Natural Sciences, she caused a bit of a sensation.

Lying in a plain wooden crate was an Egyptian mummy, her gilded death mask undimmed by the passage of centuries.

The Egyptian government had restricted the export of such artifacts decades earlier, so the appearance in 1977 of a “new” one outside the country drew some interest.

X-rays taken at the time led researchers to identify the body tentatively as that of a 14-year-old girl.

But mysteries remained. When did she live, and where? How did she die? Might her dusty linen wrappings hold any clues as to her place in society, or the customs of her time?

In short, who was she?

Now, almost 30 years after the mummy was first rediscovered, new clues are starting to emerge.

Since the initial X-rays, scientists have developed a much more sophisticated tool for probing ancient remains: computed tomography, commonly known as CAT scans. Egyptologists have scanned dozens of mummies this way, including the famous remains of King Tutankhamen – whose treasures will be on display in Philadelphia next year.

A new approach is to scan a large number of mummies from a particular location to obtain a comprehensive picture of a single community.

One such effort involves the mummies from the town of Akhmim, once a prominent center for trade and religion, located on a bend of the Nile River.

No good records exist to prove it, but anthropologists believe the academy’s unnamed mummy is from there.

And so, one day last month, an ancient “patient” had a date with a radiologist at Hahnemann University Hospital.

But first, she had to get there.

Four men are peering doubtfully into an imitation tomb – a display case, really – that is set into a wall on the academy’s second floor.

Two mummies are wedged into the cramped space. The anonymous girl from Akhmim is tucked behind a mummy from the city of Thebes, a priest named Petiese who is to be left undisturbed.

Somehow the men have to gingerly step around or over Petiese and hoist the female mummy over him, out of the tomb to a makeshift gurney padded with bubble wrap.

“There’s not a lot of place in there to get footing and have leverage at the same time,” worries Fred Mullison, whose regular job is chipping stone off prehistoric fossils.

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None of the men is an expert on Egypt. The academy, best known for its extensive collections of fossils, plants and “stuffed” animals, got out of the business of studying human civilization in the early 20th century.

Yet the mummies remain, next to a display of giant sable antelopes, because they are so popular with visitors.

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First, the men use suction cups to remove the glass from the mummy exhibit.

Then, exhibits preparator Kevin Piscitello places a custom-built wooden platform over Petiese, to protect that mummy while the men lift the girl over him.

He rolls up the cuffs of his jeans and double-knots his grey running shoes so nothing snags on either of the relics.

In he goes, bent over at the waist, gingerly placing one foot, then another, around the prehistoric remains. Ned Gilmore, collection manager for vertebrate zoology, follows.

Out comes the mummy to the waiting arms of Mullison and paleontologist Ted Daeschler, and onto the gurney.

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For a few moments, the four men stand quietly and simply gawk, savoring a rare close-up view of a bit of ancient history.

“This is excellent,” says Gilmore, admiring an outstretched cobra painted on the side of the coffin. “It’s drawn to proportion.”

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Then the mummy is gently wheeled away, down one elevator and then up another to a climate-controlled room, full of fossils millions of years older than she is.

There, she spends the night, a patient-in-waiting before her trip to the hospital early the next morning.

Daeschler returns the next day with a different crew: Egyptologists Jonathan Elias and Carter Lupton, who are conducting the Akhmim mummy study, and Frank Bender, a forensic sculptor from Philadelphia who will construct a model of how the mummy looked in life.

The mummy is wheeled through the academy’s common room at 7:10 a.m., where a sleepy-eyed group of Boy Scouts is filing in for breakfast after spending the night at the museum.

“Wow,” says a suddenly alert scouting dad, as he watches the mummy roll by.

She is loaded into the back of Daeschler’s waiting Honda minivan and slowly driven the few blocks to Hahnemann.

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Someone jokes that it won’t look so good to have a deceased patient rolling through the hospital halls.

“We lost another one,” Lupton says with a laugh. He is a vice president at the Milwaukee Public Museum who has flown here for the scanning.

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Waiting at the hospital is Michael Hallowell, chief of radiology and chairman of the radiology department at Drexel University’s College of Medicine.

He helps lift the mummy, coffin and all, into the doughnut-shaped device that will scan her insides.

The location of the mummy’s original X-rays is unknown, but in any event, they would pale in comparison to a CAT scan. The machine uses the same kind of radiation, but is far more sophisticated – the visual equivalent of peeling away the layers of an onion.

The machine takes hundreds of pictures, capturing one narrow “slice” of the patient at a time. The slices, measuring six-tenths of a millimeter, are then compiled to produce a high-resolution three-dimensional image of the patient.

The machine is turned on, and almost immediately a ghostly white image reveals the body, her arms at her sides, her fingertips touching at the waist.

The other Akhmim mummies scanned to date – seven out of an eventual 20 or more – have their arms crossed.

“This is new information!” says an excited Elias, the Egyptologist. But what could it mean?

Hallowell, the physician, delivers the dispassionate play-by-play from a medical perspective.

“No significant trauma,” he says. “The joints look reasonably good. No scoliosis” or other spine problems.

The iliac crest, the top of the pelvic bone that many people mistakenly identify as their hip bone, has fused. This means the girl is perhaps not a girl at all – she is at least in her late teens.

Yet her pelvis does not appear to have undergone the radical change that occurs when women give birth.

Later inspection reveals that her top two vertebrae have been twisted and pushed way forward. That would have been enough to kill the young woman. But the bones are not broken, and Elias thinks the displacement may have occurred after death.

Elias is director of the Harrisburg, Pa.-based Akhmim Mummy Studies Consortium, whose members include numerous universities and museums that have Akhmimic mummies in their collections.

Further testing will include carbon-dating a small section of the mummy’s linen wrappings, and perhaps an analysis of the tree rings in the wood used in the coffin. Any remaining DNA is probably too degraded for analysis.

For now, Elias puts burial about 200 B.C., give or take 50 years, due to the coffin style. That period saw some chaos: In 165 B.C., Akhmim was taken by siege. Could the young woman’s demise have occurred then?

Curiously, the coffin has no hieroglyphics indicating her name. Yet her finely painted death mask and cartonnage – the plaster-stiffened linen that covers her legs and torso – suggest someone from the upper middle class.

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Meanwhile, the academy’s own records shed little light, as record keeping in the 19th century was sparse. One mummy collected by Charles Huffnagle was added to the museum collection in 1885 – exactly the time that a large number of mummies were being excavated in Akhmim.

But the academy’s records say the mummy came from a different place, Thebes, and that she was a “daughter of the high priest of Horus.”

Those details may simply have been dreamed up by an Egyptian tomb-digger, trying to sell the relic to a visiting American, Elias said.

“Because these descriptions are so vague, it’s almost impossible to tell which one refers to which,” academy senior fellow Robert Peck said. “These were more like souvenirs that were being collected and traded. Worldwide demand for mummies was such that the details didn’t matter.”

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Elias will continue his sleuthing.

Of the dozens of mummies he plans to scan, this one from Philadelphia holds special meaning for him. He still remembers when he first saw it: during a visit to the academy in second grade.

“This is one that I had on my mind for years,” the 48-year-old said.

During all that time, no one has been able to solve all the mummy’s mysteries.

And, he acknowledges, perhaps no one ever will.



(c) 2006, The Philadelphia Inquirer.

Visit Philadelphia Online, the Inquirer’s World Wide Web site, at http://www.philly.com/

Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

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PHOTOS (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): SCI-MUMMY

AP-NY-05-26-06 0601EDT


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