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Archaeological Society digs mummy work

J.P. Brown Field Museum gives presentatiSouth Suburban Archaeological Society about whhas been learned about artifacts mummies museum's collections thhave undergone

J.P. Brown, of the Field Museum, gives a presentation to the South Suburban Archaeological Society about what has been learned about artifacts and mummies in the museum's collections that have undergone CT scans. | Brett Roseman~Sun-Times Media

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Updated: December 5, 2012 6:03AM



Do mummies get a bad wrap this time of year?

Not among archaeology fans. Sure, Halloween definitely highlights their marketing potential, but year-round the preserved bodies are more a cause for study than screaming.

“Archaeology informs us about our past,” said Will Kelley, president of the South Suburban Archaeology Society, the largest and most continuously operating such group in the state.

It recently hosted an illustrated lecture by J. P. Brown titled “Recent CT Scans of Field Museum Mummies” at the Irwin Center in Homewood.

Brown, a Regenstein conservator with the Field Museum, explained how CT scanning enables scientists to remove a mummy’s wrappings to reveal information about its gender, age and lifestyle as well as any reconstructive work that has been done to it.

“We an get very accurate measurements from scans,” Brown said. They reveal, for example, the length of a mummified ibis’ beak, which in turn tells scientists that the bird was female.

Scans can also offer insight into an animal’s diet. The fact that it ate hummus, corn and peanut butter tells much about a region’s ecology.

Brown also talked about the challenges scientists faced in capturing those scans.

While scientists could easily transport a mummified cat or bird over to a local hospital during off-hours so that it could be scanned, capturing similar images of the giant mummies was an altogether different experience.

A mobile scanner was brought to the parking lot of the museum, hooked up to a generator and the giant mummies in the Field’s off-display collection were wheeled outside, he said, further proving that science is ever dependent on the creativity and resourcefulness of those who study it.

Unlike X-rays, CT scans reveal age indicators. For instance, scans can distinguish between cartilage plates and bone. The plates solidify into bone during late adolescence. So a scan showing cartilage indicates a body’s youthfulness.

Scans can also show degrees of wear on teeth enamel, also indicating age and diet, Brown said. Scans of skulls can determine a body’s gender.

In addition to providing information about a mummy’s past, scans can also tell about any restorative work that has been done on an artifact. Vase-like objects are revealed to be whistles, thanks to information provided by CT scans. In another case, what looked like a ceramic pot was proved to be a trumpet, Brown said.

For the members of the archaeology club, the presentation, one of 10 such illustrated lectures the group hosts each year, made for a great evening out, Halloween season or not.

Carole Yoshida, program director for the society, said what she enjoys most about programs like this and archaeology in general is “the mystery of the history.”

For more information about the South Suburban Archaeological Society, visit www.ArkyFacts.org or contact Will Kelley at (773) 268-6705.



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