Two mummies that have held their secrets for centuries were exposed Wednesday to something they could never have imagined: 21st century technology.
The human remains, in fetal positions and wrapped in grass baskets, were subjected to computerized tomography at St. Luke’s Hospital.
For the first time, we will know their gender, their age at the time of death and maybe something about who they were and how they died.
“You don’t have to unwrap the basket of the mummy to see what’s in there,” cardiologist Randall Thompson said as he watched the CT scans create three-dimensional images on a computer screen.
Up to now, all we have really known is that the remains come from the highlands of South America, where they were naturally mummified by the dry air. One has holes in the skull, which may be a sign of a crude surgical procedure called trepanation to treat pain or as part of a ritual.
The mummies were purchased in 1921 by a Kansas City businessman in La Paz, Bolivia, and donated in 1939 to the Kansas City Museum, which has kept them in storage for decades. The only reason they’re seeing the light of day now is because they have a temporary home in the “Mummies of the World” exhibit at Union Station. That provided an opportunity for the station, the museum and St. Luke’s to collaborate on a project of discovery.
“We were really happy and proud to see them have an educational purpose again,” said Denise Morrison, director of collections for the Kansas City Museum. “This was an added bonus.”
Morrison had arrived at the hospital before dawn with the boxed mummies, which could be 500 to 2,000 years old, in the back of a van. They were carefully run, one at a time, through the high-powered CT scan before a crush of onlookers who were jammed into a small viewing room.
“There is some soft tissue here,” Thompson said as the first mummy was scanned. “That’s good news. It’s not just a skeleton.”
The mummy baskets may also contain burial goods that could shed light on the culture in which they lived and their position in it.
Thompson and colleagues have scanned or studied scans of about 300 mummies from around the world since 2009. Thompson’s primary interest is in learning about ancient people who had heart disease, something we used to think was a modern malady.
This was the first time mummies have been scanned at St. Luke’s, which has a state-of-the-art computerized tomography machine capable of very high resolution. It combines data from several X-rays to produce a detailed image.
It will be a few weeks before a full report on the Kansas City mummies is released.
They will rejoin the Union Station exhibit, which has attracted 50,000 visitors and runs through the end of the year.