Science & Technology



Researchers unraveling mummy mysteries with help from powerful microscope

Patrick M. O'Connell, Chicago Tribune on

Published in Science & Technology News

CHICAGO -- Inside a sprawling research building at Argonne National Laboratory outside Chicago, a collection of scientists, researchers and art curators assembled Monday to unravel the mysteries of a mummy.

The ancient Roman-Egyptian linen-wrapped remains of a 5-year-old girl, including an embedded portrait, were unearthed in Hawara, Egypt, in 1911. The mummy, about 1,800 years old and weighing 50 pounds, is from the collection of Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary on the Northwestern University campus. Northwestern researchers have been piecing together her story.

That's how the mummy ended up inside the thick steel doors of the research hutch at Argonne, where the high-energy, brilliant and penetrating X-ray beams from the Advanced Photon Source synchrotron will be able to provide unprecedented details about her components.

The high-powered beams of the Argonne machine will give researchers molecular information about what is inside the mummy, including the girl's bones, burial materials and what has become of her remains. The powerful synchrotron allows scientists a noninvasive way of probing the mummy, offering snapshots of its contents at a near-atomic level.

"That's what we're trying to do with all this analysis, to unpack who this person was," said Marc Walton, a Northwestern materials science and engineering research professor who has been extensively studying the mummy. "We're trying to construct the narrative."

This is the first time the advanced technology was used on a mummy, according to Argonne. The synchrotron, which is about 1 kilometer around, allows for the study of the arrangement of molecules and atoms. It has been used in pharmaceutical research, including the development of a drug used to stop the progression of HIV into AIDS and to study a bone of Sue, the famed dinosaur at the Field Museum.


"This will tell us about the history of the mummy and also tell us some things about its conservation," said Stuart Stock, a cell and molecular biology research professor at Northwestern University's Feinberg School of Medicine who helped lead the experiment at Argonne, which is near Lemont. "We really hope this will open a new chapter in how we study these objects."

Northwestern researchers want to learn more about how the girl died and how she was prepared after death. Stock said researchers are particularly interested in the ceramic-like material that is inside of the girl's intact skull.

The mummy was examined for more than 15 hours, with researchers monitoring the results of the synchrotron overnight. Early results, Stock said, showed the material inside the skull did not appear to be crystalline. Stock was also able to detect wires embedded in the mummy and the enamel and bone of the teeth. The girl's bones looked as expected, he said.

"We can't do this with any other technique," Walton said. "We're really pioneering new methods of looking at the intact objects without having to take an actual sample of them."


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