Macquarie Medical Imaging (MMI) has used its advanced imaging technology to help archaeologists from the Nicholson Museum better understand four Egyptian mummies from their collection.

Macquarie Medical Imaging took a step back in time when it collaborated with the University of Sydney to scan four mummies.

The mummies are part of the Nicholson Museum’s Egyptology collection. They were gifted to the University by Sir Charles Nicholson, Provost of the University of Sydney from 1854 to 1862.

Three of the mummies are well preserved. Two adult mummies were purchased inside the coffins for the Lady Meruah dated at 1000 BC and the priest Padiashiakhet dated at 725 BC – although these mummies were likely placed inside the coffins by antiquity dealers for ensemble sale.

Nicholson also acquired the child mummy of a boy called Horus. In addition, he also purchased a cedar wood coffin for a lady named Mer-Neith-it-es. When museum staff opened this coffin in 2017, they were surprised to find the heavily disturbed remains of a mummy.

“The three complete mummies were X-rayed and CT-scanned in 1997, with Horus again scanned in 2009,” explained Dr Jamie Fraser, Senior Curator at the Nicholson Museum. “Ten years on, scanning technology has advanced incredibly, and with MMI’s technology, we can see down to the sub-millimeter at 75 microns.

“We are thrilled to be partnering with MMI in what is one of the most technologically advanced scanning projects around the world at the moment.”

When Dr Fraser first inquired about the best scanning expertise in Sydney, he found that all roads led to MMI’s Professor John Magnussen, whose skill and expertise are widely respected and who previously scanned mummies for the Australian Museum. Notre Dame’s Professor Dzung Wu and University of Sydney’s Dr Estelle Laze also played a key role.

“The images that emerged as we were scanning were immediate and incredible, and the thousands of images captured will reveal much about the life, death and mummification of these four people,” said Dr Fraser. “They will allow us to investigate aspects of biology, genetics, diet, disease, burial practice and processes of mummification for years to come.”

Professor Magnussen said that it was an amazing opportunity to scan four mummies at one time – particularly one whole coffin.

“We had no idea what we were going to find inside the Mer-Neith-it-es coffin, so we ended up performing a virtual excavation and what we found was both breathtaking and puzzling,” he said.

“After looking through the initial scans of the coffin, it became evident that there was far more than dirt and debris inside. As we scanned through the head-end of the coffin, we found two well-preserved, fully wrapped feet. But nothing above the ankles was to be found apart from small fragments. The mystery only deepens.”

The four mummies and coffins will be displayed in the Chau Chak Wing Museum in a dedicated Mummy Room as part of the Egyptian Gallery. They will be displayed alongside digital CT animations showing what lies beneath bandages or beneath the coffin’s lid.

The images and insights produced by the project will fundamentally shape the content and look of the Mummy Room.

The Nicholson Museum has the largest and most diverse collection of Egyptian mummies and materials in the Southern Hemisphere.

“The phrase ‘Speak my name so I may live again’ was inscribed on many Egyptian tombs,” said Dr Fraser. “Our combined project with MMI, in bringing together science and archaeology, helps us very much to re-see them as the individuals they are.”

For more information please call 02 9430 1100

Special thanks to the Nicholson Museum at the University of Sydney

Author: Andrea Lewis; Photographer Tim Robinson. First published in FRONTIER Magazine, Summer 2019. 

Featured Photograph: Prof John Magnussen

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