Bird Mummies Get a Checkup in the CT Scanner

Oriental Institute guest curator Rozenn Bailleul-LeSuer and Dr. Charles Pelizzari examining the birds ready for the CT scan (photo by Laura d’Alessandro)

Oriental Institute guest curator Rozenn Bailleul-LeSuer and Dr. Charles Pelizzari examining the birds ready for the CT scan (photo by Laura d’Alessandro)

This roast goose dinner at the Oriental Institute Museum is fit for a long-dead king.

Thanks to the University of Chicago Medicine’s Department of Radiology, computed tomography (CT) scans show the mummified goose was plucked and cleaned as neatly as a Thanksgiving turkey. The cook even left giblets inside “and a bundle of linen to keep its shape,” guest curator Rozenn Bailleul-LeSuer said.

The 3,500-year-old entrée is part of “Between Heaven & Earth: Birds in Ancient Egypt,” an exhibit which pairs five bird mummies with CT scans produced at the University of Chicago Medical Center. Visitors can view the mummies along with 2- and 3-D images that re-imagine the birds in their prime.

The noninvasive CT technology yielded critical data. “We were able to identify species, ages and conditions of the birds,” said chief curator Jack Green, PhD.

Millions of migrating birds that visited the Nile Valley left an impact on Egyptian culture. The Egyptians domesticated geese, worshipped bird deities, and mummified birds en masse to carry prayers to the gods.

Venerated species included the falcon and ibis. Hawks, kestrels, owls, quails and waterfowl are recurring figures in reliefs and objects of daily life. The 40 artifacts on display include bird-motif amulets, a duck-shaped vase and a boomerang-like “throwstick” for hunting waterfowls.

A mummified eagle, analyzed by University of Chicago Medicine radiologists and researchers at the Oriental Institute (photo by Anna Ressman)

A mummified eagle, analyzed by University of Chicago Medicine radiologists and researchers at the Oriental Institute (photo by Anna Ressman) – click to enlarge

Doctoral candidate Bailleul-LeSuer, researching the socio-economic aspects of birds in Egypt, was planning the show when she spied a cache of 29 bird mummies in the museum’s collection. Most were wrapped, prompting Bailleul-LeSuer to ask if the contents could be scanned at the Medical Center.

Michael W. Vannier, MD, professor of Radiology, who supervised the scan of a 3,000-year-old mummy for a 2009 exhibit, spearheaded this foray into avian anatomy. Members of his team practiced on specimens loaned by the Field Museum of Natural History before tackling the artifacts.

On the plus side, deceased birds don’t squirm and radiation dosage is irrelevant. “You can take all the time you need,” said team member Charles Pelizzari, PhD, associate professor of Radiation and Cellular Oncology.

Yet there were challenges. CT scanners are designed for human-sized subjects. Adjusting a 256-slice scanner on a tiny sparrow “is very tricky,” said Pelizzari, director of the Section of Medical Physics. “We scanned the little guys over and over again until we found the right protocol.”

Skeletal image of the mummified eagle (image by JP Brown) - click to enlarge

Skeletal image of the mummified eagle (image by JP Brown) – click to enlarge

Curators gingerly brought the mummies for their checkups during patient lulls on August 19 and October 25, 2011. The specialists deployed a clinical CT scanner and a micro-CT scanner for finer resolution.

It took minutes to acquire hundreds of images, and weeks to process and analyze the data. The radiologists optimized scanning parameters, effectively restoring desiccated organs and skeletal remains to produce 3-D images. Among their findings:

  • A rare gilt adult eagle was found to have a compressed neck, giving rise to speculation that the bird of prey was damaged during embalming or killed as a sacrifice. “A bird that size would put up a fight,” Bailleul-LeSuer said.
  • Scans of an ibis revealed a packet of snail shells in its abdominal cavity, evidence this sacred bird merited food in the afterlife.
  • An elaborate mummy contained a jumble of broken bones and reeds. Among the possibilities: A merchant palmed it off as the real McCoy or Egyptians believed that even “road kill” could serve as a courier to the gods.

The Oriental Institute will submit its findings to a database that tracks animal remains and the civilizations that preserved them. Meanwhile, Pelizzari is game for more projects that merge art, history, science and forensics. The birds-eye view into the past “was really cool,” he said.

The Oriental Institute Museum is open Tuesday through Sunday at 1155 E. 58th St. on the University of Chicago campus. For information, call (773) 702-9520 or visit http://oi.uchicago.edu/museum/.

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