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School of Medicine discoveries

February 29, 2012

Modern day revelations from ancient Egypt

Mummy CT

The University of Richmond’s resident mummy, Ti-Ameny-Net, on the CT table. In just minutes, the state-of-the-art scanner acquired 25,000 images with a head-to-heel scan.

It started with an email.

On a summer afternoon, Ann Fulcher, M.D., opened her inbox to find a message from University of Richmond student Caroline Cobert. The junior was part of a research project involving the University of Richmond’s resident mummy, Ti-Ameny-Net.

She’d sought out Radiology Chair Fulcher to ask if the Department could help in obtaining CT or x-ray images of the mummy?

Fulcher’s response? “Of course!”

“As recently as the 1970s, scientists performed mummy autopsies that entailed not only unwrapping the mummies but cutting through their bones and tissues,” said Fulcher, a member of the medical school’s Class of 1987 and now chairman and professor of the Department of Radiology. “But with today’s sophisticated CT scanners and software, we can study mummies without destroying them. These images let us electronically unwrap the mummy’s linen to reveal her skeleton.”

The 3,000-year-old mummy was packed up at UR, cushioned by small bean bags that acted as shock absorbers and driven not quite 10 miles to the MCV Campus. There she was placed in a 64-detector, all-purpose scanner that is usually used to answer a specific clinical question. For human patients, the radiation dose is kept to a minimum and a focused exam of a portion of the body provides physicians with information for diagnosis or treatment plans.

But in the case of Ti-Ameny, the hi-tech scanner provided a head-to-heel glimpse into the remote past and into the life of an ancient Egyptian woman. In a matter of seconds, the scanner delivered 25,000 images.

“I didn’t expect this level of preservation,” Fulcher said of the “exquisite” level of detail captured. “I could identify all the muscle groups because all her muscles were perfectly intact.”

Mummy CT

The CT images of the head were used to create a 3D rotational image that a forensic artist Joshua Harker used to render an image of how Ti-A may have looked in life.

Fulcher was able to determine that Ti-Ameny was probably about 30 years of age when she died, which would not have been considered unusually young in ancient Egypt. Fulcher spotted signs of scoliosis of the spine and associated degenerative change, but there was no evidence of trauma or of metabolic bone disease. Her teeth, however, appeared a bit unusual compared to modern-day standards.

“Ancient Egyptians added sand to grain in order to grind it more finely,” Fulcher said. “A portion of the sand remained in their flour and resulted in the grinding down of their teeth, in some cases to the pulp, but Ti-A showed overall good dental health.”

Ti-Ameny’s preserved body showed she had benefitted from good nutrition. This, combined with the unusual effort taken to preserve the body, could be evidence that Ti-Ameny was from an elite class, perhaps the priesthood or a royal family.

The CT scans also confirmed what is known about Egyptian mummification practices. The cribriform plate and sella – bones at the base of the skull and the back of the nose – had been broken to provide a route for accessing the brain and removing it.

Abdominal organs were also removed before preservation but, Fulcher pointed out, the heart was left in place. “They saw it as the seat of the soul.” And that’s where Fulcher found her most telling finding: signs of atherosclerosis, a common ailment of the time. The resulting heavy calcifications in the vessels of Ti-A’s heart are one likely cause of death.

Fulcher’s diagnosis was independently supported by a DNA analysis. While Ti-Ameny was on the MCV Campus, a bone marrow biopsy had been taken from the femur and pelvic bones. Analysis showed no indication of common and deadly infections like malaria or tuberculosis, but there was a clear correlation for hereditary coronary artery disease.

In February, Fulcher made the 10-mile trip to University of Richmond to share her findings in an unusual Grand Rounds. Together with her student research partner Caroline Colbert, they reviewed the CT results for a packed house that included physicians and staff from the MCV Campus as well as UR students, faculty and community members.

Colbert has translated her research study into a dual degree in biology and classical civilization. She’s now headed to England and a graduate program that will allow her to continue her work with mummies.

For her part, Fulcher couldn’t be more pleased with the collaboration. “This shows how you can combine arts and science to bring history to life.”

On display
An exhibition featuring Fulcher and Colbert’s research is on display at the Lora Robins Gallery of Design from Nature at the University of Richmond. “Ti-Ameny Net: an Ancient Mummy, an Egyptian Woman, and Modern Science” runs through November 16, 2012. For information, please visit the museum’s website.