Scanning mummies: the old and the new

Two enjoyable evenings have been spent this week scanning animal mummies at the Royal Manchester Children’s Hospital for the Bio Bank project. Tuesday was the turn of the experimental mummies. Our first attempts at experimental mummification are now over 2 years old and appear to be mummifying really well. They have lost muscle mass and have reached a stable weight, indicating that the moisture within the body has dissipated. What’s more, they don’t smell (which is more than can be said of the more recent additions to our mummy family!).

In March, we thawed six bags of disarticulated bird remains donated to us by the Natural History Museum for the purposes of testing how well we are able to identify birds using radiographs. These ‘bags’ were mummified using a pine resin and beeswax mix and wrapped in linen. Our ultimate aim will be to use the scan data to attempt to identify the remains, as we do with the ancient mummies. Using disarticulated and mixed bird species is designed to echo what we see in the ancient mummies. Our friends at the NHM have kept a list of what birds were in each bag so we can check our educated guesses and see just how accurate our identification skills are! Unfortunately, due to the mangled nature of the remains prior to mummification, they have what we call ‘malodour’ i.e. they do smell quite bad.

Walking into a hospital with a massive polystyrene freezer box attracted a few odd stares from members of the public (but that’s nothing new). The radiographers were slightly put off by the malodour of the new mummies, but we managed to get all 16 scanned and radiographed in record time and the mummies were taken back to the fume cupboard.

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The mummies we scanned on Thursday were somewhat easier on the eye and the nose. 7 mummies from World Museum Liverpool and 8 (including 3 coffin masks) from West Park Museum, Macclesfield, came to Manchester for the full imaging treatment. They revealed some interesting contents which will be featured in the exhibition later this year.

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Over the coming weeks, the data obtained during the two imaging sessions will be analysed and reported back to the museums. We would like to thank Central Manchester Foundation Trust for access to the radiography suite and to the radiographers who give their time and expertise to help with this research.

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