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A 3,000-year-old patient

By Suzanne Wilder
On a clear July morning, a U-Haul van pulls into the ambulance port at the University of Chicago Medical Center ER entrance. Inside sits a long, rectangular, wooden crate, large enough to hold a body and heavy enough that it takes several men to move it onto a gurney.

The word “fragile” printed in hieroglyphs on the crate hints at its contents. Meresamun, a nearly 3,000-year-old Egyptian mummy, is on her way to radiology for a computerized tomography scan.
Meet the patient

Meresamun has resided at the Oriental Institute of the University of Chicago for almost 90 years. In her day, she was a temple singer—an elite priestess—and now she is ensconced in a colorful, sealed coffin, on which her name and profession are painted.

Thousands of years after she lived, researchers are trying to find out more about her life and death for an upcoming exhibition at the Oriental Institute Museum. The project is bringing together experts who rarely collaborate: Michael Vannier, Professor in Radiology, is analyzing the CT scans with the Oriental Institute’s Emily Teeter, a Research Associate in Egyptology.

More than a decade ago, researchers scanned Meresamun with CT and X-rays. They discovered then she once had suffered a broken jaw and arm, injuries that healed before her death. Based on an exam of her teeth and bones, they also estimated she lived to age 30.

Since that examination in the early 1990s, medical scanning technology has drastically improved, both in image quality and the time to perform scans. “We were here for eight hours last time,” says Laura D’Alessandro, head of the Conservation Laboratory at the Oriental Institute. The new procedure takes just a few minutes, though the technicians adjust Meresamun a few times to get just the right pose for her close-up.
Medical equipment, anthropological tool

CT scans typically are used for a variety of medical diagnoses, to examine internal organs, bone, soft tissue and blood vessels. But sometimes CT can be “an anthropological tool,” Vannier says.

“This runs parallel to other things we’ve been doing with the scanners,” says Vannier, who notes that University paleontologist Paul Sereno has scanned fossils to glean data, too. In the case of the mummy, the scans have identified the practices of the ancient Egyptian embalmers, such as the removal of some organs. Bones that once surrounded the organs and other details are visible in the scans. “Every time you do this type of study, you learn something,” says Vannier.

The team from the Oriental Institute opens the crate, where Meresamun lies padded with foam and gauze. They gently remove the insulation before lifting her to the bed of the machine. Her sealed coffin is unscathed from the trek across campus.

The July scans reveal new information. As images pop onto the viewing screen—labeled “mummy brain” or “mummy ankles”—Vannier and his team of radiology technicians find notable details. A thin line visible near the mummy’s chest might indicate ceremonial beads, and her bone density is high, showing no signs of osteoarthritis.

As CT technologist Kristin Runion snaps photos of the bizarre patient with her cell phone camera, she learns details about Meresamun’s life. “This is a very good quality mummy,” Teeter tells her. “You’re going to see a lot that’s not normal for a patient.”

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  1. World’s oldest Facebook member lives at the Oriental Institute - News from the Division of the Humanities linked to this post on March 19, 2009

    [...] Meresamun has been in the news a lot lately. Strange for someone who used to be so shy. When she first appeared on the scene, [...]

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