An ancient mummified Egyptian head has been examined using a computed tomography (CT) scanner at Maidstone Hospital with the aim to reveal and reconstruct the hidden history of the individual.

Gifted in a glass case to the Canterbury Museums and Galleries collection, without any details about how it came into its late owner’s possession, very little was known about the head. However, it was thought to have been brought back from Egypt as a souvenir in the 19th century.

Initial x-rays undertaken at Canterbury Christ Church University suggested an adult female, however a more detailed CT scan was organised to learn about the individual.

The scan was led by James Elliott, Lecturer in Diagnostic Radiography at Canterbury Christ Church University, who is also Senior Radiographer at Maidstone and Tunbridge Wells NHS Trust. The research was led alongside Superintendent Radiographer Tristan Barnden and Clinical Scientist Joanna Sillars from Maidstone and Tunbridge Wells NHS Trust.

The three-dimensional imaging will help to answer many questions about the individual. Preliminary results indicate that the brain has been removed, the teeth are well worn down by a rough diet and that the tongue shows remarkable preservation. Of significance, there appears to be tubing of unknown material within the left nostril and in the spinal canal. Whether this is of ancient or more recent origin, is unknown.

James, who is an expert in forensic radiography with a background in archaeology, said: “The head was found in the attic of a house in Kent which was being cleared out following the death of the owner. During the Victorian times items like this used to be brought back from Egypt as souvenirs and may well have been passed down through generations to the person who owned it.

“The scan provides a huge amount of information - everything from dental status, pathologies, method of preservation as well as assisting estimations of age and sex.

“We plan on using the scanning data to create a three-dimensional replica of the head and possible facial reconstruction to allow a more intensive study of it without exposing the actual artefact. Similar reconstructions were made with Ta Kush, the mummy at Maidstone Museum.”

James explained how mummification was ‘common practice’ within ancient Egypt but with the advancement of CT technology, more detail can be researched on ancient Egyptian traditions.

“Beginning in 3500 BC, mummification was a way to safeguard the spirit in its journey to the afterlife.

“Mummification was common practice within ancient Egypt for both commoners and royalty, although with different levels of complexity and accompanying wealth.

“Ironically, the ancient Egyptians believed that a person's mind was held in their heart and had little regard for the brain. Regardless of this, the brain was removed to help preservation of the individual. Although traditional accounts state the brain was removed exclusively through the nose, research using CT scans has shown great variability. Until relatively recently, the historic accounts have been accepted as gospel but the scanning of Egyptian mummies has challenged these ideas.”

Craig Bowen, Canterbury Museums and Galleries Collections and Learning Manager, added: “This project is part of a larger aim to preserve the head and allow it to be displayed in conservation grade packaging for public viewing.

“The conservation process also allows volunteers to experience and take part in important discussions surrounding the preservation, recording and study of human remains.”

The head is being preserved by professional archaeological conservator Dana Goodburn-Brown ACR, who is also coordinating the research efforts. As part of a collaborative scientific investigation of the head, experts from Canterbury Christ Church University, University of Kent and University of Oxford, will attempt to reconstruct the history of the individual.

The group hopes to present the findings to the public at the Beaney Museum in Canterbury.

Dana said: “I feel privileged to be providing care, analysis and liaising with specialists in the multidisciplinary team. Through our sensitively conducted research, we hope to gain a better understanding of the individual to whom the head belonged and to provide appropriate conservation care for their remains.

“In keeping with encouraging Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM), the Beaney Museum will use the application of modern technology with history to enhance learning, widen appeal and increase school visits and outreach.”

Ritchie Chalmers, Chief of Service for Diagnostics and Clinical Support Services, said: “It’s very exciting that Maidstone and Turnbridge Wells NHS Trust is involved with this project. It’s great to see how modern technology can help bring ancient history to life.

“I, along with the rest of the Trust, look forward to finding out what the CT scan unveils.”

The CT data from this individual will help to understand the wider picture of mummification and will be shared with the IMPACT Mummy Database hosted by Western University.

Notes to editors

  • As the Nuclear Medicine department does not offer patient imaging during the evenings or weekends the mummified head was scanned outside operating hours meaning there was no impact on the service provision.
  • Supervision of the imaging was also undertaken during Superintendent Radiographer Tristan Barnden’s own time without expense to MTW NHS Trust.

Craig Bowen - Collections Manager - Canterbury Museums and Galleries

Dana Goodburn-Brown - Archaeological conservator - DGC Conservation

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