Science Musuem of Minnesota exhibit brings mummies into the 21st century
The mummy exhibit opening Friday at the Science Museum of Minnesota meshes the technology of multiple millenniums.
Scientists used 21st-century high tech — including CT scanning and 3-D printing — to examine bodies that were prepared for burial as long as 5,000 years ago. The results "were pretty cool.""We found things that we wouldn't have seen any other way," said JP Brown, conservator of the anthropology department at the Field Musuem in Chicago.
Even better, they did it without "doing any harm at all" to the mummies, he said. They didn't even have to take them out of their caskets.
"They are very, very fragile," he said. "The less you move them, the better. And anytime you unwrap them, no matter how slowly and carefully you do it, all kinds of information is lost. This was totally noninvasive."
To say they're proud of the accomplishment is an understatement. "We're feeling a little smug about it," Brown admitted with a chuckle.
In fact, the Field Museum is so high on it that for the first time in its history, it is allowing part of its world-renowned collection of mummies to visit other venues. "Mummies: New Secrets From the Tombs" will run though Sept. 5 at the Science Musuem, one of only four stops the traveling exhibit is making.
"What makes the 'Mummies' exhibition really unique is the juxtaposition of these ancient specimens with the modern technology that allows us to decode them and get a glimpse of what life may have been like in these amazing ancient societies," said Mike Day, senior vice president of the Science Museum.
The Field Museum has been experimenting with technology for years, according to Brown. X-rays work on bones but not soft tissues. MRIs "show a lot of promise," he said, but don't yet provide the level of detail that archaeologists need. But when researchers borrowed a portable CT scanner and ran a mummy through it, the level of detail was astounding.
All sorts of other information was available, too.
"It was really hard to tell how old the person was" when they died, he said. "It used to be that if we got within plus or minus 10 years, we were doing good. Now we can get within a year. It's also very easy to sex the mummies — we used to have to guess based on the shape of the pelvis and skull. And, in some cases, we can even tell the cause of death."
Unwrapping the layers
There were some much less satisfying discoveries, too. One of the mummified cats — the animals were considered sacred in ancient Egypt and often were included in burial tombs — turned out to be the leftovers from a con man's dinner.
"It was a bunch of KFC bones and sand," Brown said. "But we knew that there were a lot of fake ones out there."
As excited as the researchers were about the scans, their joy was not complete. Starting in 2011, they conducted CT scans on all of the museum's mummies, amassing an incredible amount of data. But they didn't know what to do with it.
Breakthroughs in 3-D computer technology changed everything. The researchers could feed the scanned data into a computer that produced an exact replica that could be manipulated by the user.
"It's like slicing a salami," he said. "You can start with the wrappings and remove layers one at a time right down to the skeleton."
The exhibit's interactive computer stations have been a huge hit.
"The average retention time for an interactive display in the [Field] museum is 90 seconds," Brown said. "These interactives average more than 3 minutes. And they're really social; new people come in and the people using the display show them how to work it. I love to watch people using them."
What he likes the most is that the visitors get as excited about what they're seeing as he did the first time he saw it.
"You're not just looking at a bundle wrapped in a blanket," he said.