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Decapitated Egyptian mummy head gets CT scan to discover its origins

Egyptian mummy head has been examined using a CT scanner at Maidstone Hospital, with the aim to reveal and reconstruct the hidden history of the individual.

The Egyptian mummified head.

The head – which is lacking its wrappings and body – was given to the Canterbury Museums and Galleries collection in a glass case after being found in an attic in Ramsgate.

After being donated without any details about how it came into its late owner’s possession, very little was known about the head.

It was thought to have been brought to the UK from Egypt as a souvenir in the 19th century.

Initial X-rays undertaken at Canterbury Christ Church University suggested it was an adult female, however a detailed CT scan was organised to learn more about the individual.

A CT scanner is typically used to identify and diagnose conditions – including broken bones, internal organ injuries and stroke.

It also can help determine the location, size and shape of a cancerous tumour before radiotherapy.

(Left) Dana Goodburn-Brown, Tristan Barnden and James Elliott at Maidstone Hospital.

The scan was lead by a group of researchers and experts.

The group hopes to present their findings to the public in the near future.

Preliminary results indicate that the brain has been removed, the teeth are well worn down by a rough diet, and that the tongue shows remarkable preservation.

There appears to be tubing of unknown material within the left nostril and in the spinal canal. Whether this is of ancient or more recent origin, is unknown.

The head was found in the attic of a house in Ramsgate which was being cleared out following the death of the owner.

Craig Bowen, Canterbury Museums, galleries collections and learning manager, said: “The head was found by a man who inherited it from his brother.

“It is believed that the brother got it from a ‘Dr Coates’ sometime in the early/mid twentieth century, but we do not have any more detail than that.

“As Ramsgate didn’t have a museum at the time the gentleman brought it to us.”

The scan was led by James Elliott, senior radiographer at Maidstone and Tunbridge Wells NHS Trust and also lecturer in diagnostic radiography at Canterbury Christ Church University.

James, who is an expert in forensic radiography with a background in archaeology, said: “During the Victorian times items like this used to be brought back from Egypt as souvenirs and may well have been passed down through generations to the person who owned it.

“The scan provides a huge amount of information – everything from dental status, pathologies, method of preservation as well as helping our estimations of age and sex.

“We plan on using the scanning data to create a three-dimensional replica of the head and possible facial reconstruction to allow a more intensive study of it without exposing the actual artefact.

“Similar reconstructions were made with Ta Kush, the mummy at Maidstone Museum.”

The 2,700-year-old Egyptian and only adult human mummy in Kent was brought to England in the 1820s.

In 2016, Ta Kush was CT scanned at KIMS hospital, revealing that she is not 14-years-old as initially thought, but at least in her mid 20s.

James explained how mummification was ‘common practice’ within ancient Egypt but with the advancement of CT technology, more detail can be researched on ancient Egyptian traditions.

He continued: “Beginning in 3500 BC, mummification was seen as a way to safeguard the spirit in its journey to the afterlife.

“Mummification was common practice within ancient Egypt for both commoners and royalty, although with different levels of complexity and accompanying wealth.

“Ironically, the ancient Egyptians believed that a person’s mind was held in their heart and had little regard for the brain.

“Regardless of this, the brain was removed to help preservation of the individual.

“Although traditional accounts state the brain was removed exclusively through the nose, research using CT scans has shown great variability.

“Until relatively recently, the historic accounts have been accepted as gospel but the scanning of Egyptian mummies has challenged these ideas.”

Craig Bowen added: “This project is part of a larger aim to preserve the head and allow it to be displayed in conservation grade packaging for public viewing.

“The conservation process also allows volunteers to experience and take part in important discussions surrounding the preservation, recording and study of human remains.”

The head is being preserved by professional archaeological conservator Dana Goodburn-Brown ACR, who is also coordinating the research efforts.

As part of a collaborative scientific investigation of the head, experts from Canterbury Christ Church University, University of Kent and University of Oxford, will attempt to reconstruct the history of the individual.

The group hopes to present the findings to the public at the Beaney Museum in Canterbury sometime in the near future.

Dana said: “I feel privileged to be providing care, analysis and liaising with specialists in the multidisciplinary team.

“Through our sensitively conducted research, we hope to gain a better understanding of the individual to whom the head belonged and to provide appropriate conservation care for their remains.

“In keeping with encouraging Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM), the Beaney Museum will use the application of modern technology with history to enhance learning, widen appeal and increase school visits and outreach.”

Ritchie Chalmers, chief of service for core clinical services, said: “It’s very exciting that Maidstone and Tunbridge Wells NHS Trust is involved with this project.

Ta Kush mummy at Maidstone Museum.

The Beaney Museum in Canterbury

“It’s great to see how modern technology can help bring ancient history to life. I, along with the rest of the trust, look forward to finding out what the CT scan unveils.”

The CT data from this individual will help to understand the wider picture of mummification and will be shared with the IMPACT Mummy Database hosted by Western University.