Mummy's secrets revealed

Courtesy of Stanford Medical School Office of Communication and Public Affairs Mummy scan

Lisa Schwappach-Shirriff (left), curator of the Rosicrucian Egyptian Museum in San Jose, and Rebecca Fahrig, associate professor of radiology, peer down the hollow of an AXIOM Siemens CT scanner, where more than 60,000 images of the child mummy were obtained in May without disturbing its fragile remains.

Courtesy of Silicon Graphics and Volume Graphics Mummy skeleton

Above, a detailed scan reveals a mummified Egyptian girl who died approximately 2,000 years ago. Below, an image of the child’s head reveals her largely intact teeth, which helped dental specialists estimate her age.

Courtesy of Silicon Graphics and Volume Graphics Mummy skull

Frame by frame, layer by layer, the images of a mummified Egyptian child who died two millennia ago spring to life on a 25-foot screen, revealing every remarkable detail of the skeletal remains, down to the last vertebrae.

The three-dimensional images, the result of high-resolution scans done at Stanford, reveal a girl of 4 to 5 years old with short, resin-coated black curls, a receding chin and an angular face reminiscent of her famous counterpart, King Tut.

"The scans are spectacular," marveled Rebecca Fahrig, PhD, associate professor of radiology. "The fact that we were able to get such high-resolution images is pretty cool. Some of the detail in the teeth is absolutely phenomenal. You wouldn't get that with a normal scanner."

The girl, who has been dubbed Sherit, ancient Egyptian for "little one," has been a resident of the Rosicrucian Egyptian Museum in San Jose for the last 75 years—her story a complete mystery until now, said museum curator Lisa Schwappach-Shirriff.

In May, museum officials gingerly transported Sherit to a research lab in the basement of Stanford Hospital, where Fahrig and her colleagues did some 60,000 scans of the mummy using a high-end AXIOM Siemens scanner—all without ever disturbing the child's fragile remnants. Stanford was the first medical center in the world to acquire the scanner, which has an arm that rotates around the patient, thus enabling radiologists to view an individual from many angles without moving the patient at all.

The mass quantity of data from the scans was processed on high-powered computers at Silicon Graphics Inc. in Mountain View, using visualization software produced by Volume Graphics of Germany. The results, unveiled Aug. 3 at SGI, are the most detailed images to date of any mummy, with slices as narrow as 200 microns—about the thickness of a business card, Fahrig said. They are several times more detailed than the 750-micron slices used to create the popular 3-D images of King Tut, whose remains were scanned in Egypt in January (a reconstructed bust of the king is now on tour in the United States).

A visual "fly-through" of the mummy takes the viewer on a breathtaking, slow roller coaster ride down the vertebrae through the core of the see-through skeleton.

"I've seen a lot of work on mummies, and I've never seen anything like this," said Schwappach-Shirriff.

The images begin to tell the story of Sherit, whose body was draped in linen and adorned with round earrings, an amulet and a Roman-period necklace and wrapped in gilded cartonnage—all suggesting a life of wealth and privilege, said Schwappach-Shirriff.

She probably walked until near the time of her death, which appears to have come suddenly. "What we believe is the parents had a devastating surprise with this child's death," Schwappach-Shirriff said.

The scans show a girl with a healthy skeleton and no signs of trauma or lengthy chronic illness, said Amy Ladd, MD, professor of orthopedic surgery. The girl most likely died of a parasitic disease such as dysentery, which was common in ancient Egypt, Schwappach-Shirriff said; half of children in that period died before the age of 5, she added.

Ladd and her colleagues estimated the age of the child based on the bones of her wrist, by comparing them against images of children's wrist bones contained in a radiographic atlas produced at Stanford. The orthopedists also were able to determine her gender based on scans of the pelvis, which left no doubt she was a girl, Ladd said.

Dental specialists with the Stanford-NASA Biocomputation Center confirmed her age by viewing the startlingly detailed images of her teeth. "She had kind of a cute smile," though had she lived today she probably would have needed braces by age 12, said Eric Herbranson, DDS, a visiting researcher at the biocomputation center.

The girl also comes vividly to life in a painted clay bust created by Stephen Schendel, MD, professor of surgery and part-time sculptor. Schendel, who does reconstructive surgeries on children and adults, used technology provided by Medical Modeling Inc. in Colorado to generate a plastic 3-D replica of the girl's head, then used some anthropologic data to help fill out the features with gray clay and paint.

The musky perfume poured on the child's body—the remains of which appears as a kind of black tar around her face and neck—also was reproduced by Berkeley alchemist Mandy Aftel, who identified the primary ingredients as frankincense and myrrh, bathed in moringa oil. Most likely, the last contact the parents had with their child was the moment in which they poured this perfume, mixed with resin, onto the girl's body at the funeral to send her off to a sweet-scented afterlife, Schwappach-Shirriff said.

The story of Sherit will continue to unfold as scientists analyze the mountains of data unearthed through the new technology. "We will look at this data 10 to 20 years from now and still find new information," Schwappach-Shirriff said.

In the meantime, patients living today also will likely benefit from the evolving imaging technology, which has multiple potential applications in medicine—from clinical diagnosis and surgical planning to medical training and virtual autopsy, said Paul Brown, DDS, a researcher at the biocomputation center and organizer of the mummy team at Stanford.

"You're looking at the future of medical imaging," said Brown, whose dream is to assemble a publicly available computerized library of thousands of anatomical images for medical use.