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A 5,500 year old murder mystery at the British Museum

Gebelein Man, Predynastic period, about 3500 BC

ONE OF the key attractions in the Early Egypt gallery (Gallery 64) at the British Museum is the body of a man who was buried in about 3500 BC at the site of Gebelein in Upper Egypt.

Known as Gebelein Man, he was wrapped in linen and matting, and was placed in a crouched position in a shallow grave. Direct contact with the hot dry sand naturally dried and mummified his remains.

In ancient times chance discoveries of such well-preserved bodies may have promoted the belief that physical preservation was necessary for the afterlife, leading the later Egyptians to develop the practice of artificial mummification.

Discovered in 1896, this mummy is one of the best preserved individuals known from Ancient Egypt, but about whom scientists actually knew very little. Although he has been in the British Museum’s collections for over 100 years (acquired in 1900), it was not until 2012 that he was CT scanned for the first time at the Bupa Cromwell Hospital.

Detailed images were created from the CT scans’ high resolution X-rays, allowing scientists to look inside his body, and examine his muscle, bones, teeth and internal organs in ways never before possible revealing long hidden secrets.

A virtual autopsy table, a new state-of-the-art interactive tool based on medical visualisation, is being trialled in Gallery 64 for a limited time (November 16 to December 16, 2012) and will let visitors explore this natural mummy for themselves and learn how scientists have only now been able to discover his age and determine the surprising way that he died.

Using the interactive touchscreen and the gesture based interface developed by the Interactive Institute and Visualization Center C in Sweden, it is possible to strip away the skin to expose his skeleton, and make virtual slices to view his internal organs and his brain, still present in the skull, organs that were often removed when the ancient Egyptians began to artificially mummify bodies.

Information points at relevant locations will guide the visitor to explore the more significant discoveries.

A virtual rotation of the body shows the shape of his pelvis (hip bones), which confirms he was a male and, zooming in on his leg and arm bones, one can see the fusion lines that indicate he had only recently finished growing and was probably 18-21 years old when he died. Consistent with his age, his teeth, fully visible for the first time, show light wear and no dental problems.

In addition, these new scans are allowing scientists to visualize something more unexpected. A cut in his skin over his left shoulder blade doesn’t look like much from the outside, but the 3D visualisation of the CT scan shows that this was probably caused by a sharp pointed weapon 1.5-2cm wide that penetrated the underlying shoulder blade (scapula).

Professor, MD. PhD Anders Persson of the Center for Medical Image Science and Visualization (CMIV), a Forensic Radiology expert, who also uses the virtual autopsy system for criminal and accident cases in Sweden, confirmed the British Museum’s assessment that the force of the blow was such that it also shattered the rib immediately below the shoulder blade, embedding bone fragments into his muscle tissue, and injuring the left lung and surrounding blood vessels.

The absence of any signs of healing and the severity of the injuries suggest that this can be considered the cause of death.

Weapons as symbols of power and status are fairly common in the graves of this period, but evidence of violence are extremely rare. The lack of other defensive wounds suggests the injury was not a result of warfare, and that perhaps he didn’t even see it coming and could have been murdered.

He has been on display for many decades, but it is only now, through the use of modern science and state-of-the-art technology that scientists are beginning to understand how Gebelein man lived and died.

Neal Spencer, Keeper of Ancient Egypt of Sudan said: ‘‘The latest technologies allow us to learn more about life and death in ancient Egypt, but most importantly our visitors can take part in that exploration and discovery process.”

David Hughes of the Interactive Institute said: “This powerful visualisation system has enabled not just remarkable new revelations about one of the British Museum’s most iconic mummies, but also brings the thrill of discovery straight to the gallery for the public. Using exactly the same technology that the scientists use, visitors to the museum can now explore for themselves and, who knows, perhaps even make their own new discovery with the exhibit.”

Thomas Rydell, Studio director at the Interactive Institute and principal lead of the virtual autopsy table project, said: “It’s exciting to see how the technology we developed for medical use can be used for science discovery and communication. We believe this will set a new standard for how museums will display their collections and findings, by enabling the visitor to interactively explore the “real” underlying scientific data.”

And Nina Arcuri, CT Superintendent at Bupa Cromwell Hospital ] said: “Our CT scanner is one of the most advanced high definition scanners in London, producing images in a never-before seen level of detail. We never thought when installing it that the scanner could be used to reveal over 5,000 years of history, and are delighted to have been involved in such an exciting project.”

The Department of Ancient Egypt and Sudan at the British Museum houses the largest collection of Egyptian objects outside Egypt, which illustrate every aspect of the cultures of the Nile Valley, from the Neolithic period (about 10,000 BC) until the twelfth century AD. The Museum also conducts research excavations at nine ancient sites in Egypt and Sudan.

British Museum, Great Russell Street, London, WC1B 3DG