Occasionally people ask me the age of the oldest person I’ve ever scanned. Nowadays I give them the answer to my best approximation: 3,000 years old. This is the age of Neskhons, a mummified Egyptian.
Neskhons was recently acquired by a friend of mine with an outstanding art and antiquities collection. The mummy’s head had been liberated from its bandages at an “unwrapping party” some 100 years ago, but the rest of his body remains tightly swaddled in his original linens. I immediately saw an opportunity that could not have been imagined upon his exhumation from Luxor in the 1800s: without disturbing anything, we could see inside the wrappings and build a full 3-dimensional reconstruction of his body.
As it turns out, an X-ray had been performed on Neskhons in the 1960s, and a few things were noted. The films revealed two amulets wrapped above his chest: a scarab and a falcon. There was also a larger chunk of something on his left torso, tucked beneath his forearm; the museum curator suggested it perhaps was there to cover the incision where his internal organs had been removed. That was all that could be discerned from the X-ray. Much more remained to be discovered about who this man was and what was buried with him.
There are some advantages to scanning mummies (as opposed to living people): no consent forms, no claustrophobia, and no wiggling in the scanner. But there are obvious disadvantages as well. First, for a neuroscientist, it is disappointing that the mummy’s brain had been removed with a hook through the nose at the time of death. Next, might parts of the mummy crumble off in the scanner? But these were minor compared to two bigger problems.
First, for those of you who know my lab, you’ll know that we employ magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) when trying to decipher the human brain. So this was my first plan for the mummy. But there was a big concern here: the possibility that Neskhons had, enfolded in his ancient, never-unwrapped linens, a hunk of metal. That would spell bad news for the MRI, which is a giant magnet. The kind of magnet that wipes credit cards and can send a fire extinguisher rocketing across the room. The kind of magnet that could, in theory, rip a piece of metal straight through a mummy’s linens and ruin both mummy and machine.
Bad scenario. So my student Don Vaughn and I drove over to visit Neskhons at the museum, where, like good TSA employee, I passed an airport metal detector over his body head to toe.
No sign of metal. And Sam Roberts, the art curator, further set our mind at ease by suggesting that a high priest like Neskhons would not have been buried with a hunk of iron rather than a precious metal like gold. (Gold is fine in an MRI scanner). Although this seemed like promising news, I was still a little worried.
And there was a second problem. MRI scanners work, in part, by detecting changes in electron spin in fluids in tissue and bone. Neskhons had no fluid at all. Would we be able to pick up any MR signal at all from totally desiccated skin and bone? To find out the answer, my student Ricky Savjani hunted down a desiccated skull from the anatomy lab and tried it out in the scanner. Totally invisible. We tried some different pulse sequences. No avail.
When it became clear that MRI wasn’t going to do the trick, I knew we had to move to a CT scan, which is a series of X-rays taken from all different angles and then reconstructed into a 3-dimensional whole. To this end I got in touch with radiologists Seth Roberts and Pedro Diaz, and then Tim Bramer and Christina Trevino at the Baylor Clinic. Everyone was immediately on board with the plan.
At 6 pm on the appointed day my student and I converged at the CT scanner with Sam Roberts (the mummy’s curator), three handlers, the CT technician, and a few curious nurses.
The handlers pulled up to the loading dock behind the clinic and loaded the large wooden crate onto the freight elevator. Once up on the 12th floor, the crate was wheeled into the scanner room. When the lid’s 28 screws had been removed, Neskhons was slowly exhumed from the middle of hundreds of rolled pieces of paper.
Then, with great care, the mummy was lifted onto a cart. The cart was rolled into place beside the scanner. I put the CT scanning bed at the correct height, and with hushed concentration we lifted his plexiglas plank from the cart onto the scanner bed. So far, so good.
Under the expert direction of scanner technician Christina Trevino, we optimally aligned the mummy so that his body would be able to slide into the gantry without the wrappings touching on either side. (We barely made it!)
Once he was in place, we went back into the control room, and the magic began.
Parameters were entered and the table began to move back and forth. We all found it somewhere between funny and uncomfortable when the calm, computerized voice called out pre-recorded commands to the patient such as Try to hold still or Hold your breath now or Breathe out now. Apparently the programmers at Phillips weren’t imagining this sort of patient.
The screen flashed to life with the first delivery of data. The images we captured were beautiful.
First, we could see right away that the back of his skull, hidden in the bandages, was elongated (or dolichocephalic). Some scholars have argued this head shape results from intentional deformation, while others argue that it results from normal microevolution within a population. When King Tutankhamun’s skull was scanned in 2005, he was also found to have a very dolichocephalic skull. Researchers examined the fusing of his cranial sutures for evidence of head binding (in other words, for evidence of intentional deformation)–and found no support for that hypotheses. They concluded that Tut’s elongated skull was “most likely due to normal anthropological variation….” (Frank Yurco, “An Egyptological Review”, 1996).
The first video below shows a 3D reconstruction of his body. Along with the skull, note his surprisingly long fingers. It was breath-taking for us to see beneath these bandages that had hidden the body from human eyes for 3,000 years.
In the second video we traverse along slices through his body, from the head down. Here you can see that all of his innards had been removed, and in their place were stuffing of cotton and, in some places, linen. Strangely, and not yet explained, there are three rolled-up pieces of something (cloth?) that run down the length of his torso to the bottom of his pelvis. These can be seen as the semi-curled shapes in the video.
Of great interest to me was the piece of metal under his left arm. In the video, you can see the slices that correspond to that piece of metal: they are the frames in which there is an enormous glow–an artifact of the metal in the scanner. Because our airport wanding didn’t pick up on any signal, the piece is presumably not ferromagnetic; I think it’s likely to be gold.
In the next video you can see a close-up of the piece of metal. It is surprisingly thick, about the size of a book. I squinted hard to see if there might be inscriptions upon its surface, but unfortunately the resolution of the scanning won’t allow us to pick up on that. Presuming the mummy is never unwrapped, we may never know if something interesting in written on it.
We continue to analyze the data in more detail, and I will keep everyone posted with new findings here. Something that strikes me as interesting: Neskhons’ sarcophagus (not shown here) is vividly painted with scenes about the afterlife. He presumably wouldn’t have guessed that his body’s afterlife would take place in a transparent case in a foreign land known as Houston, Texas, among tall and long-living people with magical tubes that have the power to peer into hidden dimensions of a body and reconstruct it at 1.5 millimeter resolution. For this reason and others, we treated the occasion with the respect and solemnity. After all, who knows where our bodies will end up in 3,000 years hence? Who will be looking at our empty hulls, and what technologies will they employ to reconstruct the details of our lives?
People involved with this project include: Sam Roberts (Arts curator), Christina Trevino and Tim Bramer (Baylor Clinic), Seth Roberts and Pedro Diaz (BCM radiology), Chelsea Dacus (Museum of Fine Arts curator), and several others who helped to coordinate the whole event. The mummy is owned by the Bosarge Family Office, Houston, Texas, and is currently on display at the Museum of Fine Arts.
"David Eagleman may be the best combination of scientist and fiction-writer alive."
- Stewart Brand
"A popularizer of impressive gusto...[Eagleman] aims, grandly, to do for the study of the mind what Copernicus did for the study of the stars."
- New York Observer
"David Eagleman is the kind of guy who really does make being a neuroscientist look like fun."
- New York Times
"Eagleman has a talent for testing the untestable, for taking seemingly sophomoric notions and using them to nail down the slippery stuff of consciousness."
- The New Yorker
"David Eagleman offers startling lessons.... His method in both Sum and his new book, Incognito, is to ask us to cast off our lazy, commonplace assumptions."
- The Guardian
"What Eagleman seems to be calling for is a new Enlightenment."
- Sunday Herald
"[A] neuroscientist and polymath."
- Wall Street Journal