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August 22, 2009

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Mummy scans probe ancient riddles

SCIENTISTS trying to unwrap the mysteries of a more-than-2,500-year-old mummy believed to be an ancient Egyptian priest conducted computer scans on Thursday to help determine how the man died, what was buried with him and what he looked like.

In a basement lab at Stanford University Medical School, Iret-net Hor-irw's mummy lay tightly wrapped in tattered linen as a handful of scientists looked on. Starting with his feet, the scanner rotated around the mummy, snapping X-ray type images that appeared on nearby computer screens.

The pictures, showing well-preserved bone structure, were then mathematically manipulated to generate 3-D images that give a fuller picture of the skeleton.

The highly sophisticated scanning technology allows scientists to learn about the 1.62-meter mummy in remarkable detail without doing invasive or damaging procedures.

"You begin to see features that relate to paleopathology, diseases that may have been suffered by the individual, also mummification style and patterns -- how they may change through time," said Dr Jonathan Elias, director of the Pennsylvania-based Akhmim Mummy Studies Consortium, which directs CT scans of mummies and archives the research.

The digital images will also be useful for teaching anatomy to everyone from small children through medical school, said Paul Brown, consulting associate professor at Stanford's Department of Surgery.

"We'll be able to look at every bone in the body, see if there are any fractures ... any artifacts," he said. "It's a mummy, so it makes the interest factor high."

Iret-net Hor-irw's mummy belongs to the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco. It was dug up from a cemetery in Akhmim, on the east bank of the Nile. Elias said Akhmim was an important provincial capital and the site of one of Egypt's major temples. Relatives of the more famous King Tut also came from there, Elias said. Studying Iret-net Hor-irw can lead to a better understanding of changes in population from his time to the Tutankhamun period.

Scientists have not been able to pinpoint Iret-net Hor-irw's age when he died or his cause of death. The scanning tests may help them get a little closer. For now, they can only date him to around 500 BC, just before the Persian conquest, when the last native Egyptian dynasty ruled.

"This is one era which is very poorly understood at this point," Elias said. "So if this mummy is of that period, which we believe that he is, we'll be able to begin to write a history that has never been written."


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