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X-raying a mummy head

From Canterbury Museums and Galleries.

By the way, 'x-raying' is not a real word. To use the technical term it should be 'radiography of a mummy head'.

The mummy head from Canterbury Museums and Galleries. It had lightweight supports which held the head in a supine (upright) position.

I had my first opportunity to image a mummy head. Of course I have already looked at the Maidstone Museum mummy, Ta Kush, but this one was the first head I've laid my hands on. Whilst Ta Kush had been subjected to a computed tomography scan (CT), this head underwent an x-ray. In modern medicine the skull x-ray is not typically performed anymore, its clinical value is somewhat limited, but the forensic value should not be underestimated. Nevertheless, I hope to perform a CT on this head too.

Dana Goodburn-Brown, an archaeological conservator, sought to find out more about the head and it's preservation state. My interest in the head was more of a forensic nature; what sex was the individual, what was the estimated age, are they any pathologies that can be seen? From an archaeological perspective I wanted to know whether any artefacts could be seen within the eyes (such as metal or stones over the pupils of the eyes) or within the skull vault. Could any resin (i.e. ancient Egyptian preservative) be seen in the skull vault?

The face of the mummy. Virtually nothing is known of this individual, there are sparse records. Even the sex is unknown. Thankfully Dana and her team have preserved the head from further degradation.

The head has a murky history. Dana tells me that the head is from Canterbury Museums and Galleries, but originally it was brought from Egypt as a souvenir and then purchased by a doctor who lives in Canterbury. When the doctor died his relatives discovered the head in the attic! It was then given to the museum. As can be seen from the photos the head has received some damage over the course of time - most likely since its ownership in England rather through antiquity. It was in a poor state when Dana first received it for conservation, the right zygomatic bones were detached. You will also surmise that the head has been unwrapped, but it is unknown when the unwrapping occurred - perhaps the doctor did it? I'll have to contact the museum to see if they have any paperwork that can help the detective work.

The left side of the face is in a better condition. It appears as though the tongue is still present, and sticking out of the mouth.

The imaging was undertaken during England's second lockdown period for the coronavirus. Luckily for me the university was still open for business and we had all necessary precautions in place, including limiting the number of people in the x-ray room. Unfortunately this meant that I could not broadcast the imminent arrival of the ancient Egyptian head to the x-ray room. On two previous occasions the head was due to be imaged at CCCU, and on each occasion I had a small entourage of interested students from archaeology, forensics or radiography. This time we were severely limited to who could be in the room - two people. With this in mind I contacted some filming students at CCCU to film the event. Eventually this will go onto YouTube so that other interested parties can see how we did the radiography. A big thanks to Max Barrett and Luke Snare, two excellent 3rd year students studying filming at CCCU.

Max Barrett setting up for the filming. Me, looking rather stern, setting up the x-ray equipment. Luke Snare was sorting out the audio for the filming session.

Dana and I, after the unboxing filming, positioning the head for its first image - an anterior-posterior view (i.e. an AP in technical language).

The head was within a sturdy box, covered with packing material. In what could be described as a very odd unboxing moment we removed all the material with the onlooking video camera and then placed the head on the x-ray table for some initial views. The head was securely positioned with some low density supports - cotton wool surrounded by thin plastic. It certainly made it easy to move the head around, but it posed a difficulty with regards to radiographic technique. I had sponge pads to hand that were specifically for heads, but now I needed to adapt my technique for a head on a stand.

The first x-ray of the mummy head, an AP. My markers (R/L) and the aluminium step-wedge are seen on the image. The ghostly rectangle outline on the left was the visual scale (in cm). You will also note that the exposure was 70 kV and 6.3 mAs.

Thankfully the supports didn't show up on the image too much, not enough to warrant taking them all off and going free-style with the radiography. In any case, we have every intention to have the head CT scanned in the future (a '3D' picture). After a short session posing for the filming guys Dana and I cracked on and experimented with different views of the head to get as much information as possible about the unknown individual. We performed the obvious lateral (i.e. 'sideways') view to show the anatomy in profile. I believe this to be the most valuable x-ray for the skull, you can see a lot of the morphology of the head and the state of the dentition. After a little bit of experimentation I managed to obtain some oblique views of the mandible. In doing so this separated the jaw from the maxillary teeth, allowing greater visualisation of the teeth within the jaw.

The lateral view of the skull. My right marker is on the image as the right side of the face is closest to the detector (what some may call the film). A great deal of anatomy can be seen in this view. The large white blob at the bottom was a sandbag, used to prop up the detector during imaging.

Over the next week I shall sit down and have a look at all the x-rays and consider what can be learnt from them. The sex of the individual will certainly be gained through anthropological comparisons - which is where the AP and lateral views will be useful to assess the shape and form of the skull. The back of the skull is rather thick, far too thick for a normal individual. Could this be resin (or preservatives or remnants)? Or could it be a pathology such as abnormal thickening of the skull bone? In truth, x-rays are limited and a CT scan would be very helpful to clarify some of these questions. For now though, I am more than satisfied to have the opportunity to image the head in the Canterbury Christ Church University in the x-ray room.

Dana and I looking very interested in an x-ray on the screen.

All images are subject to copyright, permission for reproduction must be requested from the author.

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