Researchers are using the latest imaging technology on an Egyptian mummy to try to unlock secrets of the ancient world, including whether a mysterious packet inside her was an offering to the gods to help secure a place in the afterlife.
The high-resolution testing Thursday at Quinnipiac University also may determine the age at which the woman died and whether she gave birth, researchers say.
"It really is going to give us a fantastic view of this mummy," said Ronald Beckett, co-director of the Bioanthropology Research Institute at Quinnipiac. "Every mummy has a story to tell. Every piece of information adds to our understanding of the ancient Egyptians."
The mummy, known as Pa-Ib and believed to be about 4,000 years old, has been in the Barnum Museum in Bridgeport since the 1890s and was a prized exhibit of the flamboyant showman P.T. Barnum. It will be transported Thursday in a coffin complete with a police escort from the museum to the university's campus in North Haven.
A CT scanner will take images that are eight times the resolution of tests done in 2006, and a tiny camera will be inserted inside the mummy.
Researchers are trying to determine if bundles in the abdomen and pelvis cavities contain a bird mummy or are organs. The earlier tests led to speculation that the bundles might contain a bird mummy.
Lorelei Corcoran, director of the Institute of Egyptian art and archaeology at the University of Memphis, said if the mummy contains a bird mummy that would be "extremely unusual."
"It just gives us another example of this very intriguing phenomenon of bringing a gift with you to the afterlife," she said.
Corcoran said she knows of only two other human mummies with bird mummies, one at the J. Paul Getty Museum in California and another in Switzerland. She said birds such as a falcon and an ibis were associated with the Egyptian god Thoth, who was believed to play an influential role in the final stage of judgment of the dead.
"He's the one whose opinion you would want to influence in order to get to the eternal afterlife," she said.
Colleen Manassa, assistant professor of Egyptology at Yale University, said the likelihood of a bird mummy inside a human mummy would be "highly improbable" if the human mummy is 4,000 years old, as the museum believes, because Egyptians were not embalming animals around that time. She said the mummy is likely younger, which would mean there could be a bird mummy inside, but it would still be highly unusual.
"It would make it a very important mummy," Manassa said, by showing the practice of animal offerings was not just done at temples.
Corcoran said the mummy could be much younger than 4,000 years old. She said the closest time parallel is a case at an Egyptian museum in which a baboon was mummified and wrapped in a bundle that was placed over the mummified and wrapped body of a woman separately more than 3,000 years ago.
Beckett said the packets may turn out to be organs, which were taken out of the body, preserved and placed back in the mummy for use in the afterlife.
"Wouldn't it be wonderful if it turned out to be a bird?" Beckett said. "It's just so rare that it would be that we would be surprised."
Determining the cause of death will be difficult, but researchers might be able to offer a range of diseases from which the mummified woman may have suffered, Beckett said.
Beckett said he does not believe the woman was royalty, saying her worn teeth suggest the diet of a commoner.
Radiological tests done in 2006 indicated the remains may be those of a woman who was at least 18 years old and possibly 30 or older and showed evidence of arthritis in the pelvic area, which is common with women who have given birth.
The earlier tests were not able to determine a cause of death, researchers said.
"Every mummy has the secrets of what their life was like," said Gerald Conlogue, co-director of the Bioanthropology Research Institute. "I think we'll learn a lot more about her."
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