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Mummy's mystery unravels in 3D June 27, 2004

British Museum uses computer animation to probe 2,800-year-old body

Meet 'Nes' - though he may not have been as nice as he looks. In fact, personality type is now pretty much the only thing we don't know about Nesperennub, an Egyptian priest in his forties who lived 2,800 years ago on the banks of the Nile.
In a technological and historical world first, this weekend the British Museum has unveiled or, more accurately, unwrapped the interior of a mummy that had remained sealed since it was made by masters of the ancient Egyptian craft of mummification. The startling operation was carried out without disturbing the intricate wrappings and amulets that were originally placed around his dead body.

Using scanning technology developed by neurological researchers in a London hospital, the British Museum has recreated the kind of public 'unrolling' of a mummy that used to draw crowds in the 19th century. In those days irreversible damage was often caused to the remains inside and many mummies were discarded and lost forever.

Nes, as curatorial staff refer to the mummy, came to the British Museum around 40 years ago and has remained one of the Egpytology department's mysteries ever since.

'Nes had been X-rayed once when he first arrived, but the pictures were very fuzzy,' said John Taylor, a curator in the Egypt department and the man who has developed the new 'virtual unrolling' process in collaboration with an English executive of the American virtual technology specialists, Silicon Graphics Incorporated. By combining the latest scanning techniques with 3D computer animation, the museum has reconstructed a virtual Nes, right down to the interior of his body.

'All we really know about a mummy from the outside is what the person's name is and what they did as a job. We can now find out what they looked like, how old they were, whether they were healthy and how they died,' said Taylor.

'But what is really new about what we have done here is that Nes can be used again and again as an experimental model, like a guinea pig really, instead of just offering us a series of static images.'

Together the scientists and historians have discovered every detail of the dead priest's physical condition and burial procedure. They now know, for instance, that he had an abscess at the base of one of his teeth and that the mummifying team who worked on him made rather a botched job. It is not possible to tell from the outside, but a burial pot was accidentally glued to the priest's head. 'The team must have assumed no one would ever find out, so they just carried on and covered it up,' said Taylor.

Yet there is one new mystery about Nes, who once officiated at rituals inside the temple of Khons in Karnak in 800 BC. In the process of creating a 3D representation of his skull, the team discovered a small hole, like a bullet hole, near his brain.

'It is an anomaly,' said Taylor, 'because it appears to be destroying the brain from the inside out and yet it does not seem to be the cause of death.'

Neurologists have suggested a variety of explanations, ranging from a tumour to a cranial form of tuberculosis, but nothing fits completely because there are no other signs of disease in the body.

Families who would like to be introduced to Nes, and perhaps take a virtual trip through his body, should visit the museum's special exhibition Mummy: The Inside Story, which opens this week.
 

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