Micro-CT unravels mummy mystery


CT scans of 2,100 year old mummy from the Ptolemaic period - previously thought to be that of a hawk - have surprised experts by revealing it is actually a human fetus. Maidstone Museum UK, worked with Andrew Nelson (Western University) and a team specialists to determine dates, places of origin and mummification methods of its artefacts. With the help of Nikon CT (computed tomography), the unexpected discovery was made.

EA 493 - Mummified hawk, Ptolemaic period. Image: ©Maidstone Museum

Maidstone MuseumIMG 0120 resized webThe mummy is loaded in the XT H 320 and is ready to be scanned. Image: ©Maidstone Museum is home to a vast collection of fine art and historical artefacts with over 600,000 items of international importance. Amongst these items are a selection of mummies. The majority of these are animals such as snakes, crocodiles, cats and birds, aside from one resident human mummy - Ta-Kush. A recent project titled 'Ancient Lives' at the museum, led to these artefacts being scanned using CT to determine dates and places of origin as well as mummification methods.

The resulting CT scans provided some interesting information about the mummies, but 'EA 493' the mummified hawk of the Ptolemaic period had a much bigger secret inside. Experts were incredibly surprised to see that the initial scans revealed a human fetus. Although these scans managed to reveal that the hawk was actually a human fetus, the scans still lacked true detail.

IMG 0126 resized webThe resulting scans are analysed. Image: ©Maidstone MuseumBio-archaeologist, Andrew Nelson - Anthropology professor and mummy expert at Western University worked closely with both the Maidstone Museum and Nikon Metrology to conduct micro-CT scans and take a closer look. With the extremely high resolution micro-CT scans, the team was able to virtually unwrap the mummy. The digital model created from 360 degree CT scans can be virtually dissected and sliced limitlessly, whilst preserving the original specimen, causing no damage.

The resulting scans show well-formed toes and fingers but a skull with severe malformations. Andrew Nelson explains, “The whole top part of his skull isn’t formed. The arches of the vertebrae of his spine haven’t closed. In this individual, this part of the vault never formed and there probably was no real brain. It would have been a tragic moment for the family to lose their infant and to give birth to a very strange-looking fetus, not a normal-looking fetus at all. So this was a very special individual.”

In the video below, take a look at what the micro-CT scans revealed and listen to the words of Andrew Nelson on what the unique story behind this mummification would have been.





Read more about this discovery below: 

  • Western University's press release on the subject.
  • Maidstone's Museum's article on the discovery.

Or learn more about Nikon Metrology's CT inspection services.