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UofL team determines gender of science center’s mummy

March 24th, 2008

mummy

A computer model of the skull.

By Kevin Hyde

A University of Louisville research team recently helped the Louisville Science Center learn more about an old friend — a 2,600-year-old friend.

Actually, the friend, a mummy called Then-Hotep, is more like a family member, having been one of the most popular attractions at the science center and its forerunner, the Natural History Museum, since the early part of the last century. But throughout all of those years, it kept one big secret: Nobody knew its gender.

Until now. Under the leadership of professor Aly Farag, director of the Computer Vision and Imaging Process lab at J.B. Speed School of Engineering, the UofL team applied technological and forensic expertise to verify that Then-Hotep is a female.

The human skull holds many clues to gender, so the team focused on making a faithful reproduction of the mummy’s head, Farag said.

Here’s how the team did it.

The groundwork was laid in 2004 when the science center transported the mummy by ambulance to Baptist Hospital East for CAT scans, X-rays and an endoscopic exam, which required inserting a small camera into the torso and skull. These tests confirmed several assumptions about the mummy, including that it had some bone fractures and that its heart had been removed during mummification.

But the gender remained a mystery — partly because during mummification, the body’s hands were placed over the pelvis — another bone that reveals data about gender.

Using data from those tests, which Baptist Hospital East donated to the team, the CVIP lab generated a 3-D computer model of the mummy’s skull. The process involved slicing the X-rays like bread into 190 micro-thin strips and feeding them into computers, Farag said.

Team members digitally put each strip back together to create the a computer model of the skull that is so accurate it shows bone structure and tissue. The computer model also confirmed that the brain had been removed during mummification — a common practice in ancient Egypt — and it showed evidence of damage the mummy received during the 1937 Louisville flood, when the skull was separated from the body.

CVIP sent the computer model to the Speed School’s Rapid Prototyping Center, which constructed a physical model with the exact dimensions of the original skull.

The entire process took about three weeks, Farag said.

“The steps involved in creating the 3-D model were tedious because of the similarities between the wrappings and the bone signatures,” he said. “But both tasks are routine for us since we have over 25 years of experience of image analysis.

“The fact that such talent and capabilities exist at UofL is great for such projects and many others of medical and industrial nature,” he continued. “The CVIP lab and the Rapid Prototyping Center are great resources capable of doing many good things.”

The science center displayed the physical model of the skull last year. After the skull came off display, it went to research team member Phil DiBlasi, an archeologist and anthropologist in the College of Arts and Science.

DiBlasi measured the physical model more than 30 ways then entered the measurements into a forensic, anthropological and archeological database on human characteristics.

The data analysis, which is 99-percent accurate, Farag said, verified a match with an Egyptian female.

Working with the UofL team let the Louisville Science Center approach its mummy research correctly, said Theresa Mattei, science center managing director of visitor experience, because it “helped us be as scientific as possible in learning more about the mummy and her past.”

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