4,000 Year Old Egyptian Mummy Goes Under Digital Knife

What do you get when you combine modern medical technology with a 4,000 year old historical artifact? You gain access to a unique perspective of history that few people get to experience.

Tjeby is a 4,000 year old Egyptian mummy at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts in Richmond. They partnered with an HCA Virginia imaging center to conduct a CT scan on the mummy to better understand what Tjeby may have looked like and to learn more about the early mummification process.

Dr. Jim Snyder, with HCA Virginia, performed the CT scan last month so we decided to catch up with him and get his thoughts on such a rare experience. Here’s our Q&A. Also be sure to check out the pictures below our interview.

 

HCA: What was your first thought when you found out you’d be doing a CT scan on a 4,000 year old mummy?

Dr. Snyder: I had scanned another mummy from the University of Richmond in the mid 1990s so I was very interested in scanning another mummy since CT scanner and computer technology has improved incredibly since then. I was both eager and a little worried since Tjeby was 4000 years old and I was not sure condition he would be in. I was hoping we could discover some new information by thoroughly scanning him.

 

HCA: What kind of preparation was involved with this and how did HCA Virginia come to the collaboration with the VMFA?

Dr. Snyder: Most of the preparation was on the part of the museum. During our discussions we assured them that we could scan the mummy with very little notice. For the VFMA, it required much more time and preparation since they had to wait for a time of the year when there were few classes requiring the mummy exhibit. The museum also had to dismantle the elaborate exhibit and construct a temporary case for Tjeby’s ride to our imaging center. The collaboration was initially through Dr. Underhill and the Drs. Frable (benefactors of the museum). The idea was suggested and, from I understand, sparked the interest of the VMFA. Dr. Underhill approached me because I had done similar scanning in the past.  CT scanners depict objects based on their density. Living humans have tissues of many different densities (water, fat, calcium, air, proteins, etc) which is why CT scanners do such a good job at delineating anatomy and pathology. Mummies seem to be made of very few densities. Bone, air and their soft tissues. However, their soft tissues no longer have any water or fat and share a density similar to cardboard, which is also similar to the fabric of their wrappings and which is coincidentally very close in density to air. So it can be difficult to glean any soft tissue anatomy from the surrounding wrapping and air because their densities are so similar.

 

HCA: What was it like to be so close to an impressive piece of history?

Dr. Snyder: My wife and daughters always tease me about my habit of watching the History Channel and Antiques Roadshow on TV and not much else. I am a history buff and read as much as I can although I am not very knowledgeable about ancient Egyptian history. Impressive as Tjeby is as an historical artifact, I could not help but wonder how he inconceivable it would seem to him that he would be found 4000 years after he died, carted around the world, stored in a museum in Massachusetts for decades, all but forgotten, and then end up half a world away in Richmond, Virginia.

 

HCA: How long did the process take from the time the museum arrived until the time they left?

Dr. Snyder: The museum officials arrived much earlier that Tjeby, since the vehicle transporting was being very careful to make his ride a smooth one. When he arrived, photos were taken as he was placed on the scanner. We spent about an hour scanning him because we were experimenting with different scanning parameters in order to see if we could improve visualization of any remaining soft tissues. We had so much data from all of the scanning that post processing would have to wait for later. The whole event lasted about two hours.

 

HCA: Besides finding out what he looked like, what else might you learn about the mummy as a result of the CT scan?

Dr. Snyder: Unlike the mummy from the University of Richmond, Tjeby has very little, if any, detectable soft tissues (skin, muscle, hair). However, Tjeby is at least 1300 years older. We are still looking over the scans but some preliminary findings are…

1. We have found a hood or pectoral garment draped over his head and shoulders that was previously unknown. It seems to closely match others seen in sculptures.

2. His axial skeleton is completely disarticulated, a jigsaw puzzle of ribs, vertebrae, iliac bones, mandible and sacrum. We speculate that he may have been stood on end, causing his bones to drop down into his abdomen.

3. Inside his skull is some low density layered material that may be resin used to fill the cranial vault. It is layered on the left side of his head and has spilled out of his left orbit, suggesting that he may he been placed on his left side soon after mummification. That is how he is positioned now, on his left side, although it is difficult to tell when looking at his wrappings with the naked eye.

4. Inside his skull, suspended in layering resin are several teeth and at least one digital phalanx (finger bone). We are not sure how those got in there.

5. His age was previously estimated to be between 25 and 40. He growth plates are closed. His bones seem to be in very good shape with no significant changes of osteoarthritis, so the estimate seems accurate.

 

HCA: What’s one thing that happened that day that you’ll always remember?

Dr. Snyder: My oldest daughter and her fiancée came home from college to see the mummy ‘in person’

 

HCA: What item from the museum will you be scanning next?

Dr. Snyder: That is up to the VMFA. I hope they will find something.

 

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