Scientists Use Particle Accelerator To See Inside Ancient Egyptian Mummy

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Scientists from Northwestern University in Illinois were able to get a glimpse of what’s inside an Ancient Egyptian mummy, using a high-energy particle accelerator to see inside while eliminating the chance of damaging the preserved remains.

The Hibbard mummy, as noted by PBS NewsHour, dates back to the late first century A.D., and contains the remains of a young girl who lived in an agricultural community west of the Nile. The girl is believed to have been five-years-old at the time of her death, with the entire mummy weighing about 50 pounds. According to the Chicago Tribune, the girl’s remains were found with an embedded portrait when the mummy was unearthed in 1911 in Hawara, an Ancient Egyptian archaeological site.

Earlier this week, a team of Northwestern University researchers took the Ancient Egyptian mummy to Argonne National Laboratory, where the scientists used high energy X-rays to investigate various objects embedded within the mummy. PBS NewsHour stressed that the particle accelerator experiments were far removed from the English mummy unwrapping parties of the 19th century, which were mainly performed “in the name of science and entertainment” and resulted in the destruction of numerous ancient specimens.

In a statement, Northwestern University materials scientist and study lead Marc Walton said that his team’s primary intent in studying the Hibbard mummy was to see how the physical sciences can be used to deconstruct art and the “technology” behind it.

“We’re trying to get into the mind of the artist to understand why they’re making certain choices based upon the economics of the materials, their physical structure, and then use that information to be able to rewrite history.”

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With the help of the aforementioned high-technology equipment, the Northwestern researchers were able to see a “more photorealistic representation” of the dead girl’s face, as compared to the usual highly-idealized three-dimensional images people come up with when thinking of such relics. PBS wrote that the painting of the girl’s face on a wood panel was one of thousands of examples of Egyptian mummy portraits, yet one of only a few of these portraits that are still intact alongside their mummy.

One of the researchers, art history Ph.D. candidate Olivia Dill, helped perform a CT scan on the Hibbard mummy, in hopes of determining the young girl’s cause of death. The girl had no visible injuries, which led the researchers to theorize that she might have died from smallpox, malaria, or tuberculosis, the Chicago Tribune wrote. Researcher Taco Terpstra, a professor of classics and history at Northwestern, said that the girl’s death at an extremely young age was not unusual for the era, as life expectancy was about 25 years or so at the time, with about half of all children living to see their 10th birthday.

The CT scan also revealed a “small, mysterious object” wrapped to the girl’s stomach, and while Dill admitted that it was hard to determine the object’s shape, she believes that it might have been “some sort of stone.”

In addition to to the mystery object in the girl’s stomach, the Northwestern team also found fragments of a bowl-shaped object inside her skull. While the shards don’t appear to be made up of glass, the researchers are likewise unsure of what the object was and what it might have been used for.

“The shards within the skull do not show any evidence of crystallinity,” said researcher Stuart Stock, a cell and molecular biologist at Northwestern’s Feinberg School of Medicine.

“I am inclined to think the shards are something noncrystalline like solidified pitch.”

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Further explaining why he and his colleagues decided to use a particle accelerator to scan an Ancient Egyptian mummy, Walton told PBS NewsHour that it also boiled down to convenience, as the Hibbard mummy was housed in the Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary on the Northwestern campus. The mummy was given to Lydia Beekman Hibbard in return for her financial contributions to archaeologist Flinders Petrie’s excavations at Hawara, though it would be only a year later when Hibbard donated the mummy to the seminary, which was then called the Western Theological Seminary of Chicago.

Given the cavalier attitudes of the people who participated in the unwrapping of Ancient Egyptian mummies in the 19th century, PBS wrote that the Northwestern researchers’ use of noninvasive scientific techniques could help art historians delve deeper into the backstories of mummified individuals, without damaging the mummies or disrespecting the fact that mummies are essentially preserved human remains.