STANFORD -- Stanford University researchers aided by Silicon Valley engineers are using high-tech tools to unravel the mystery of a 2,000-year-old child mummy -- without removing the wraps.
Researchers hope that more than 20,000 images taken by sophisticated scanning equipment and other technological tools at Stanford's School of Medicine will offer a detailed, three-dimensional look inside the small Egyptian mummy that has been stored at a San Jose museum for more than 70 years.
The mummy, less than 3 feet tall, was handled as delicately as possible when it was transported Friday to Stanford from the Rosicrucian Egyptian Museum & Planetarium, said curator Lisa Schwappach-Shirriff.
The research, which is expected to take months, could reveal much information about the mummy, such as the child's age, sex and name, as well as the cause of death and whether any jewels or trinkets are included with the mummy.
"The real treasure of archaeology is human life," said Schwappach-Shirriff. "Because of technology, we may be able to give this child part of its life back."
Mountain View-based Silicon Graphics Inc. will process the Stanford images, applying 3-D visualization technology in the first effort of its kind in the United States. In 2003, the company did similar work with a 2,800-year-old mummy from the British Museum in London.
Researchers plan to create a face to show what the child probably looked like, said Dr. Kevin Montgomery, the technical director of Stanford's National Biocomputation Center. A computer program will take images of the bones and combine them with images of typical facial soft tissue from the same ethnic group, taken from a database of human anatomy, he said.
Further examinations of the data by orthopedists, anthropologists and pediatric dentists should allow them to narrow the child's age within a six-month range, and advanced 3-D imaging could let researchers discover the child's name, which is probably in hieroglyphics on the breastplate.
Researchers knew little about the mummy when the museum acquired it around 1930. According to x-rays performed in the 1960s the child was 4 to 6 years of age at the time of death. Those images showed pelvic asymmetry that suggested possible walking difficulties.
This particular mummy was chosen as the first to be examined using the new technology partly because child mummies are rare. But the Rosicrucian museum has six mummies, so more examinations are possible, Schwappach-Shirriff said.
"Every single one of these people has a story to tell," she said.