Unwrapping Brooklyn's Mummies - Archaeology Magazine Archive

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How new CT scans produced much more than fancy images of bones


Edward Bleiberg (Courtesy Edward Bleiberg)

On June 23, 2009, a team from the Brooklyn Museum supervised by Edward Bleiberg, curator of Egyptian, Classical, and Ancient Middle Eastern Art, and Lisa Burno, Head Objects Conservator, transported four mummies from Brooklyn to North Shore University Hospital for CT scans. Drs. Jessie Chusid, Amgad Makaryus, and Karen Lisk of North Shore volunteered their time and services to scan four of the oldest patients they had ever encountered. The mummies on board were from various periods dating from the Third Intermediate Period (1064-656 B.C.) to the Roman Period (30 B.C.-A.D. 395). The trip was smooth and the CT scans went without trouble. The scans produced vast amounts of data to be sorted and analyzed, but even immediate, preliminary readings of the scans revealed some very unusual discoveries. Pasebakhaemipet, a Theban "prince" of the 21st dynasty, had a reed in his throat (1070-945 B.C.). "Lady" Hor of the 22nd Dynasty was identified as a man after 70 years of misidentification (712-664 B.C.). Thothirdes also of the 22nd Dynasty had also been misidentified as a woman, while the fourth, an unnamed first-century Roman period mummy still had some brain left in him. Bleiberg discussed the Brooklyn Museum's fascinating mummies and their CT scans with ARCHAEOLOGY's Morgan Moroney. He described what's been learned so far and the future plans for the scans, while emphasizing the importance of non-intrusive mummy unwrappings, the open exchange of scholars, excavating in museum storerooms, and public outreach.

Why did you choose to scan these four mummies out of the Brooklyn Museum's 11 human mummies?

Six of our 11 mummies are complete, the rest are parts, significant parts, but parts. We scanned one of these six, Demetris, a first-century Roman period mummy, in 2007. This summer we had enough funding to scan four mummies and so we chose Pasebakhaemipet of the 21st Dynasty, Hor and Thothirdes of the 22nd Dynasty, and an unnamed Roman period mummy.

What is the purpose and significance of scanning these mummies?

We are basically looking for confirmation of sex, age at death, and cause of death, if we can find it. We are also looking at the history of any disease that we might be able to see, but then also history of mummification because different periods and people of different social status received different methods of mummification.

What are some differences in mummification techniques between the periods of the mummies you scanned?

With the four we certainly did see differences in mummification, even in very close time periods. Dynasty 21 has the best coffins and they have relatively high quality mummifications, which we see with Pasebakhaemipet. He's probably the highest status individual in the group of four, and he still had his heart which is exactly what Herodotus, who is much later, tells you is available in the most expensive method of mummification.

[Herodotus was a Greek historian who lived from about 480-425 BC. His Histories has one of the only first-hand accounts of mummification, as the Egyptians never wrote down the process.]

Neither Thothirdes nor Hor, who were 22nd Dynasty, immediately in the next period, had a heart, which is an indication that they would have had the cheaper method of mummification. They both seem to have canopic packets, which Pasebakhaemipet doesn't have. Canopic packets are when they mummify the organs and then they put them back in the body, rather than removing them completely and placing them in canopic jars.

[Canopic jars are four containers used in embalming to store the mummified stomach, lungs, liver, and intestines of the mummy. Their design changed over time, but they are known for representing the four sons of the god Horus, who protected the organs. The jars were placed in the tomb with the mummy in a canopic chest.]


The mummy of royal prince, Pa-seba-khai-en-ipet (ca. 1111-937 B.C.E.), is uncrated at North Shore University Hospital (Adam Husted, Brooklyn Museum)

Are there other ways to test and compare mummification techniques?

There is a study going on now at Bristol University that is looking at the history of mummification. They are taking samples of as many mummies as they can, including Brooklyn's mummies, and are testing the chemical compositions of the resins that were used in mummification. In general, what they are finding is that the resins that are used for both disinfecting and dehydrating the interior. The recipe changes over time as if there is a conscious effort on the part of the embalmers to improve the process. In fact, it does improve over time, although at the end it seems to fall apart, mostly because they are much less interested [in Greco-Roman Egypt]. Most of the mummies you get in the end are not even Egyptians, like our Demetris. Those who are mummified are the wealthier people and they do participate in Egyptian culture to a certain extent. They were more concerned with their portrait than with mummification. Our two Roman Period mummies have no hearts, in spite of one having a fine mummy portrait, which was apparently an expensive thing to have. Demetris has a very nice portrait that even sort of looks like him, but the mummification process itself is not as high quality. The other, which is 3rd century, and who we scanned this time around, we don't know his name, but he does have a Greek hairstyle and wears a beard, which is a pretty Greek and un-Egyptian thing to do. Egyptians show the braided beard of Osiris but typically Egyptians shave and Romans shave too. These two guys, who were probably Greek, were more interested in the portrait. They wanted to make it the best thing in their whole assemblage of things.

About how much data was collected for each mummy?

Approximately 2,845 images are generated from about a two-minute scan. It takes data from 64 different points and that data can be manipulated in a computer program that allows them to make 3D reconstructions.

How long might it take to sort through and analyze the scans for each of the mummies?

Sorting the data is the longest part of the process, and Dr. Chusid and Dr. Makaryus are doing this as volunteers and they do it in their spare time. They have been wonderful about volunteering their time, but they do have full time jobs as cardiac radiologists and that's what they have to do during the day. I hear from them on weekends and late at night--the emails always come then--because they're both so interested. One thing Dr. Chusid said was that these patients stay still, and since he's used to scanning hearts, which don't stand still under any circumstances he said it was very interesting to see what goes on when it's perfectly still, and the images are very clear. He's the one who discovered the interior amulets [in Pasebakhaemipet] which was really a big shock. I thought only royalty had that. Although Pasebakhaemipet has been identified as royalty, he doesn't have a completely royal title. He was mayor of Thebes so that may be the reason why he had these interior amulets.

You scanned one of the museum's Greco-Roman mummies, Demetrios, in 2007. Have you seen a vast improvement in technology even in the past two years?

I am not certain if it's a new machine since the scans in 2007. The doctors certainly spoke this time about the increase in quality of the resolution that they're getting right now. But what I'm most struck by is the fact that I did a project similar to this in 1986 in Memphis, [University of Memphis] and what was really noticeable to me was the speed. It took four hours in 1986 to scan one body, and then days to construct the images from all the data generated. Whereas the scan now, as I said, takes two minutes to do an entire body and the images themselves are generated instantly. The doctors' complaint, I gathered, was that their computers were not able to process fast enough to display the images, although you do get something right away, and that's how we found out about Hor. I could see immediately what he was talking about when he told me that we had misidentified. It's very very clear, and when they do the 3D reconstructions, which are done separately on a computer program, it is really like taking a photograph of the interior. It's just amazing stuff. They [Dr. Chusid and Dr. Makaryus] are really experts. In Brooklyn we x-rayed our mummies for the first time in the 1930s with film, which is now very deteriorated. It is almost impossible to read, and there's barely anything on the film. They made prints, which are sometimes useful. This new technology is just so miraculous to me and they're very experienced.

What questions have you been able to answer so far with the data available?

To answer questions like age of death the doctors look at the thighs and at the spine. Those are areas where they can make determinations like that. Especially after adulthood, the condition of the spine is the key thing they look at. Because we right away saw that Hor was not the right sex as far as we knew, then we asked them to look at everybody's pelvic areas and, actually one of the others was actually misidentified as a woman. So on the spot that became one of our important questions, and I now realized, of the five mummies we scanned [including Demetris, scanned in 2007], they're all men, but three of them were previously identified as women, through a variety of mistakes. The mistakes are very interesting; mostly they were made a long time ago. Demetris, was first identified as a woman in 1911, Thothirdes and Hor were misidentified as women in the '20s, or probably even in the teens. We have inventory cards, but people didn't always date their cards and comments so we're not exactly sure. That was when Thothirdes and Hor still belonged to the New-York Historical Society. Finding out the sexes, that kind of thing, we identified very quickly because we know where to look. Things like cause of death, they have to take a much wider look for trauma, because the organs aren't there any longer. They can't say 'oh he had a heart attack', or kidney failure or something like that. They can look for diseases of the bone.


Cartonnage containing mummy of Hor (ca. 712-664 B.C.E.) is placed on a gurney at North Shore University Hospital (Adam Husted, Brooklyn Museum)

Do you have any further thoughts or conclusions about the tube-like reed found in Pasebakhaemipet's esophagus?

I'd never seen anything like it, and I'm looking at other 21st Dynasty mummies, particularly their x-rays and CAT scans. I have no idea what it is. It's not something that Herodotus talks about. The guesses are that it has something to do with supporting the neck, although why you need something to support the neck is not clear. One thing that I thought of was that it's purposefully keeping the esophagus open, but I don't know why you would need to do that either, unless it's something to do with the opening of the mouth ceremony and the need for breath, with the idea that the mummy was going to breathe in the next world.

[The opening of the mouth ceremony was a ritual performed on a mummy to magically open the mouth, allowing the deceased to use his senses in the afterlife.]

The reed was inserted from below according to the radiologists, which means it was clearly post-mortem and it wasn't the cause of death. He didn't choke on something. The doctor was fairly certain that the embalmers had inserted it via the chest cavity, so he was dead. But we're not even clear what it is. The doctors said it was some kind of tube and it looked to me to be some type of reed, at least that's what you'd expect for it to be, something like a papyrus reed. [In the images] you can't really see color; the doctors can find the general degree of hardness but they can't even distinguish between glass or stone, for example. They can see it, but they can't tell you exactly what the material is.

Why were so many of the Brooklyn Museum mummies' sexes mis-identified?

I think it has something to do, in the case of our three, with imperfect knowledge. Demetris was excavated in 1911 and identified as a women because in classical Greek the "is", like Doris is a woman's name ending. It should be Demetrios if it's a man. What they didn't know yet was in Hellenistic Greek dialect in Egypt, many men's name were just ending in "is." But we have a whole series of notes on what a homely woman Demetris must have been as we have a very fine mummy portrait of her. People were very interested in how she wasn't idealized. In fact, she's a 59 year old man who was idealized. And so bad grammar is one reason for mistakes. Then Thothirdes who had a beard of Osris on his coffin, who had a red face, which is associated with being a man, was x-rayed either in the teens or in the 20s and despite the fact that x-rays do not show soft tissue, they say this is a women. They don't say why. They say undoubtedly it's a woman, and it may be because of the pelvic shape, which of course is a notoriously bad gender marker. They always tell you in the introduction to physical anthropology that statistically women will have wider hips and men will have narrower hips. In individual cases it is very hard sometimes to decide. So either it was because of pelvic shape or because of a bad x-ray. And we were forced to explain why she had a man's coffin. We thought she was being identified as Osiris, like many women were.

And what about "Lady" Hor?

With Hor it as on the basis of the face [on the coffins] as it has no beard. It is very delicate and aesthetically a very high quality face, without a beard, and in the '20s it was identified as a woman. Hor, by the way, makes a much better man's name. It's short for the god Horus. We contrasted it with this male with a beard. When I got back from the hospital I looked at a picture of the museum's mummy cartonnage of Nespanetjerenpere and put my hand in front of the beard and said--oh you know it's pretty much the same face. It's just bad judgment. Of course it's easy to say this looking back 70 years. We just know so much more now than we did then. Those sort of subjective art historical arguments, we probably would not make them today, and if we did, we have the ability to check. This is the whole reason it's worthwhile to continue research on objects that have been studied for the last 100 years. We still learn new things about them, especially with the new techniques available.

Could Lady Hor's coffin have been made for a woman and then used by a man?

No. The cartonnage has no inscription at all, and cartonnages are inner coffins. The outer coffin is in storage because it's never been conserved and it's very dirty. The name was identified in the 20s based on the coffin and when I went to look at the coffin and I could only see one side. I have to get our handlers to take it off the shelf because the back is against a wall. I could see the htp di nsw formula but I could not find the name.

[htp di nsw= A common inscription found on coffins which means "A gift which the king gives..." and is followed by a list of offerings to the gods.]

I had to get down on the ground because that was the only way I could see it. The coffin is in a plexiglass box because we have a microclimate inside. What we have to do is get enough art handlers to move it, to open the box, and then to see. I think I know where the name is. The title would be nbt-pr, that's how lady is usually translated, if it's a woman. I would be greatly surprised if the outer coffin actually said nbt-pr. They decided it was a lady in the 20s and so they started calling it that. When we found out Hor's true sex, we did the quickest label change in the history of the Brooklyn Museum. We actually managed in three days to change the label to say it was a man. Usually that's a six-month process. But we had people asking the guards on June 30th: where's the woman who turned into a man? It was very nice to have been able to change our label. We haven't changed the label on Thothirdes yet because there had been no publicity about that. The doctors sent me scans without looking at them and I figured it out, which was pretty surprising, and I sent it to the radiologists for confirmation, and they said yes.

What are some more unusual discoveries made about the mummies?

Some of the mummies still have brain matter, as if they have their entire brain. If you use the hook that Herodotus describes [to remove the brain via the nostrils] it breaks a bone in the skull [a thin honeycombed bone behind the eyes]. Some of the mummies don't have a break in that bone and have what appears to be organic matter in the cranium instead. In the ones with the broken bones, there are resin pools and that really has a different consistency because the resin is almost glassy and smooth whereas the brain matter is bumpy and organic looking. This probably has to do with status and Herodotus actually talks about three different methods of mummification based on ability to pay, and so I think what we're seeing is something related to that. This gives us the opportunity then to associate the mummies' titles, if we can find them, with social status and socio-economic status.


Cartonnage containing mummy of Hor (ca. 712-664 B.C.E.) is prepared for CT scanning at North Shore University Hospital (Adam Husted, Brooklyn Museum)

With the two Roman period mummies they mostly cleared out the interior of the body, although Detmetris had his gall bladder still. We're not exactly sure why that was left, but that was the cause of death. The fact that there were gallstones trapped in the gall duct when he died is evidence that that may have been the cause of death. He's inscribed, although the inscription is broken, with what we used to read as "89," and we now understand it has to be 59. His age was also determined by looking at the spine. The difference between an 89 and a 59 year olds spine is so clear that they were able to show me and even I was able to recognize it. They have templates that they compare, and it all has to do with the thickness of the pads [between the vertebrates] that are in your spine. And when you're young you have these very thick pads and I know myself, I'm not quite 59, they get smaller, but by the time you're 89 they are really shrunken and the bone is rubbing up against each other and that's why you have back aches all the time at that age. Demetris was right there, his spine looks just like the 59 model they have. It was a question of whether you restore the two lines as pi or as nu. And nu is 5 and pi is 8 and it was clear that we had been restoring it incorrectly. It was a good guess. The science actually told us how to move on the inscription, which I thought was incredibly cool. It was only the science that told us the right answer, the paleographic answer became absolutely clear and it made perfect sense too, although it was a choice that had been made in 1911 and we had pretty much stuck with it until then.

Have you been able to make any definite conclusions about cause or age of death of the four mummies?

We haven't. Pasebakhaemipet has some sort of wound in his head, but we're not certain it was cause of death or if it happened during embalming.

They had scientific reasons for seeing what the equipment could do. For them what was most interesting, although they both turned out to be interested in archaeology, was what they could do with the equipment that they hadn't done before, and how to improve their skills as radiologists. But we were asked at the press conference at the time about curses and I can say I don't believe in the curse. The doctors didn't seem to be too concerned about it either.

Have any of these four mummies been previously unwrapped?

Hor is sealed in his cartonnage, and Thothirdes is sealed in his bandages. Pasebakhaemipet was unwrapped in the 60s in a poorly documented research project, unfortunately. The anonymous man who was unwrapped came here in 1952. He was unwrapped purposefully in a search for artifacts and in fact, in those days, because we are an art museum, the curators didn't even see the value of keeping the body. The curator at that time told the technician to put the mummy in the incinerator, and the technician actually consulted with his priest and a nun and asked if he would be in danger of mortal sin if he did that. They told him yes, so he refused to do it. This was actually the subject of a 1958 television program. We're still trying to get a hold of the tape. We've now discovered that the tape does still exist. In the 50s there were weekly live TV dramas and this one actually identifies the people who were involved by name, and says its taken place at the Brooklyn Museum.

Wow! What does this story mean for the Brooklyn Museum?

In the museum's standpoint it's interesting how things have changed over the past 50 years. We would never think of doing that today, but 50 years ago people might not have been surprised. The curatorial staff might not have been surprised. It's very interesting because it's due to an individual's own private moral objection that this object was saved for us. It also brings you to the whole problem of how to deal with display of mummies. We are looking to rewrap [the unidentified man] as we have all the linen, and we are looking at ways of rewrapping him that would allow us to display him with the wrappings but that would also be legitimate so that when people look at it they would see something close to the original wrappings. We have good photographs of the 1952 unwrapping. In the 60s luckily it was not complete, and it was stopped after the head and the chest. I only found out about this recently and we only found out that Pasebakhaemipet had jewelry very recently and we found it stored separately. We are also going to try and rewrap him [Pasebakhaemipet], and we'll be able to show the jewelry now.


Cartonnage containing Mummy of Hor (ca. 712-664 B.C.E.) undergoes CT scanning at North Shore University Hospital (Adam Husted, Brooklyn Museum)

Has re-wrapping been done elsewhere?

We think it's been done in England. Our conservator is trying to track down if anyone has done it before. With our Roman Period man who was unwrapped in the 50s, they pretty much just made a cut down the center and then pealed it back and also they removed two large shrouds, which we have still, and they were able to remove them without any damage to the shrouds. It's conceivable that we could put the bandages back and then the two shrouds. We have photographs of what they look like, so we could reapply the shrouds. He was wearing a cartonnage mummy mask, which we would like to put back so that we could display it as he really looked. It is really up to us if we can get it to look like the photograph, and then inside we would have to leave a message for the future [laughs]: this was unwrapped in 1952, this was re-wrapped in 2009, so that nobody gets the wrong idea of what we were doing.

Is there more that can be learned from doing these re-wrapping?

We would try to duplicate the process. There have been a number of unwrapping projects that are fully documented. There was one in the British Museum, there was one in the Royal Ontario Museum where, under controlled conditions, unwrappings were done. They were fully recorded, and so they learned a lot. John Taylor has a lot about it in his book on mummification, he even has a diagram of how a 21st dynasty mummy was wrapped.

[John Taylor is Assistant Keeper of Ancient Egypt and Funerary Archaeology at the British Museum. Bleiberg is referring to his book Mummy: the Inside Story, which details his x-rays and 3D visualization of mummies.]

This is extremely useful because our collection is so old and people have always been active. Teti [Brooklyn Museum mummy] was unwrapped in the 1860s. (He belonged to the New-York Historical Society then) They sold tickets and we suspect they sold linen as souvenirs because we don't know where the linen is from Teti. In New York, there were several 19th-century unwrappings that are known to have taken place and it was like a show. And it was long. It took like three or four hours. But they were able to sell tickets.

Do you have any plans for displaying CT scans?

We are scheduled to open a new gallery for our mummies in May of 2010 and we'd like to present as much information as we have. We haven't figured out how to do it. Some of it will be done in an audio-visual way. We know we will have at least one screen for video. The question in the Egyptian gallery is always how do you present material without totally demanding the attention of your visitor. We're looking for ways of positioning the screen so people can look at the CT scans themselves so that we can have video and moving images, but we still want the objects to be the people's main focus so that when you come here you're looking at ancient Egyptian objects, not at a video. We can put a video on our website, you don't need to come here to see a video. Also we want to focus on how we know what we know, because the public is very interested in that. Like, how do we know Demetris was 59? We're still thinking of ways to present how we know Hor is a man and not a woman because it's very clear that when you're dealing with the public you need a certain amount of tact. We have a very clear photograph of male genitals, but can you show that in our gallery, even if they're 3,000 years old? That's a discussion we still haven't had. We still have problems with what and how to present to the public, but we want to present as much as we can.

[image] [image]
CT scan image of the mummy of Hor previously thought to be female (Adam Husted, Brooklyn Museum) CT scan image of the skull of the mummy of Hor (Adam Husted, Brooklyn Museum)

Will the data be accessible to outside scholars and scientists?

We're very anxious to share with other institutions because that's the only way to move forward. These things only make sense in a much wider context, so I've been going through Harris's X-ray Atlas [An X-ray Atlas of Royal Mummies edited by JE Harris and E.F. Wente] which is where I found other 21st Dynasty x-rayed mummies and their interior amulets. There isn't a good compendium. Lots of museums are doing this now. Lots of museums and curators are in touch. We started this because the Getty did it. The Getty x-rayed their Roman period mummy, and they knew its closest parallel was Demetris. They told us there was an ibis mummy inside their 1st century A.D. red shroud mummy which is just like our Roman red shroud mummy, and they asked if we knew if we have an ibis mummy inside ours. We said no, but we would really love to know!

[A red shroud mummy is a Grec-Roman style mummy dating to the first and second century A.D. These mummies are named for the red pigment on the linen wrappings and include a realistic portrait of the deceased.]

They actually came out and helped us. They did other testing by a process that's called XRF where you can do a chemical analysis of the surface of the mummy. They were able to tell us that just like their red shroud mummy, the red pigment came from the Rio Ocho, which is in Spain. It's first century and you know they're both Roman provinces, so it's not entirely surprising that the pigment of the paint is being imported from Spain. On the other hand it tells you something important about the cost of a red shroud mummy because you have to use this imported paint to make one. That's why we initiated scanning and why we did Demetris first, we wanted to compare. We don't have an animal mummy inside of ours but the Getty had a wonderful program in 2006. They gathered together everyone that had red shroud mummies and we talked about it and everybody made plans to scan. It's great that one institution began this process in the past few years. Other institutions have seen the value of it and have done it and we're just beginning to have the opportunity to make comparisons. It's only by building up a number of cases that you can begin to build up generalizations that actually mean something. The sample is still really small, but we are in touch with people. We're part of the Bristol University project that's looking at resin. We sent them 25 resin samples and they've gathered up resin samples from all over the world. So in conjunction with C14 dating we're able to put the resins at least in order, and they had begun to construct a history or the mummification process and how the recipe of resins changes. They've realized that although it's called bitumen, which is a kind of coal, the ancient resins have nothing to do with what we call bitumen. That term was first applied in the 1880s and it's significant because it was applied in French and the French meaning of the word is even slightly different compared to the English word. Everything seems to be tree resin, not the gooey deposits found with certain kinds of coal. Together we're getting names sorted out once again. It's a great example of institutions sharing information.

Why else is it important to re-examine artifacts and search in storerooms?


Mummy of Royal Prince Pa-seba-khai-en-ipet (ca. 1111-937 B.C.E.) is prepared for CT scanning at North Shore University Hospital (Adam Husted, Brooklyn Museum)

I'm from the generation, as a graduate student, when they began to say we should be excavating in museum storerooms as well as conducting new excavations. New excavations, of course, are very exciting but the fact is that there is tons of unanalyzed information in major collections, and in minor collections too. I'm going to be consulting next week at the Bass Museum [Miami] to examine a 26th Dynasty mummy that's never been studied. It came to them from a private collection. It has never received any scientific attention at all, and because of our scanning project and some publicity we've been getting, I've been invited to come and look at their mummy. Emily Teeter of the Oriental Institute [at the University of Chicago] was able to find new things out about a very old object in the OI [the mummy Meresamun] and the British Museum hasn't collected a mummy in I don't know how long, and John Taylor has done fabulous work looking at coffins of mummies. There's a complete study in Leiden, the first to publish their whole collection of x-rays of their human and animal mummies, and although the book was published in 2005 it's full of question marks. Nevertheless, just by their getting it out there I've been able to say well, we have one like that, we have another like that, and in some cases I might know a little more since we've been doing Carbon-14 dating. C14 is much more accurate than it was 35 years ago, it really can narrow the date range down. We are talking plus or minus 100 years, sometimes plus or minus 25 years. We were able to get Demetris down to a 50-year range. What was really great was that it was the same range that the art historians had put the mummy portrait into. Both approaches yielded the same result and sort of verified each other.

Do you plan on scanning any more Brooklyn mummies?

We have one sealed cartonnage that we think is a woman. Its name is Gautseshenu, which means something like "Bouquet of Lillies." Seshen is actually the origin for the name Susan; it comes to English from Hebrew. It has been an Egyptian name since the 6th dynasty. A woman's name in the 6th dynasty (2282-2117 B.C.). Also the deceased is portrayed as a woman wearing a woman's dress in cartonnage so we're almost certain that it's got be a woman in there, but now we feel like we don't want to say until we have a look. She's also sealed, and we hope that next year we'll have enough funding to go forward with that.