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Museums use CT scans to take the mystery out of mummies


3D printing factors somewhat heavily in the exhibition, allowing museums like the AMNH to showcase replicas of various artifacts. This allows visitors to examine small details they might often miss when the object is trapped behind glass, as well as getting a better sense of the object’s size and weight.

Another way visitors are given an intimate look at the mummies is through a series of touchscreens that let people “virtually unwrap” them, delving down through each individual layer: skin, bones, organs and small artifacts buried with the body. This is particularly revealing when it comes to the Peruvian remains, which were often buried in “bundles” instead of laid out flat. The bodies were placed in a sitting position and then wrapped up, with objects of significance tucked into each layer. How the body was positioned and where each item was located holds a lot of useful information about that person and their culture, which would have been remained unknown without the CT scan, and completely lost if scientists ever risked unwrapping the human specimens.

Of course, CT scans can’t reveal everything. While DNA testing and isotopic sampling can provide troves of information, they still involve some physical intrusion on the remains. James Phillips, a curator at the Field Museum told me that his most-wanted technological advancement would be some way to obtain DNA without having to drill into the body. For the scientists at both the Field and the AMNH, this is the ultimate goal: To treat human remains respectfully and non-invasively, gaining as much knowledge as possible from them while ensuring they’ll still be around for a few more millennia.

“Mummies” opens March 20 at the American Museum of Natural History and closes in January 2018.



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