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Notes on the history of the radiological study of Egyptian mummies: from X-rays to new imaging techniques

Appunti sulla storia dello studio radiografico delle mummie anticoegiziane: dalla radiografia convenzionale alle più recenti tecniche di immagine

Abstract

A few centuries after the practice of mummification was finally abolished in the seventh century A.D., mummies began to capture the collective imagination, exerting a mysterious fascination that continues to this day. From the beginning, the radiological study of Egyptian mummies permitted the collection not only of medical data but also of anthropological and archaeological evidence. The first radiological study of an Egyptian mummy was performed by Flinders Petrie shortly after the discovery of X-rays in 1895, and since then, radiology has never stopped investigating these special patients. By the end of the 1970s, computed tomography (CT) scanning permitted more in-depth studies to be carried out without requiring the mummies to be removed from their cartonnage. CT images can be used to obtain a three-dimensional reconstruction of the mummy that provides important new information, in part thanks to the virtual endoscopy technique known as “fly through”. Moreover, starting from CT data and using sophisticated graphics software, one can reconstruct an image of the face of the mummified individual at the time of his or her death. The history of imaging, from its origins until now, from the simplest to the most sophisticated technique, allows us to appreciate why these studies have been, and still are, fundamental in the study of Egyptian mummies.

Riassunto

Pochi secoli dopo la definitiva abolizione della pratica della mummificazione, avvenuta nel VII secolo dC, le mummie cominciarono a colpire l’immaginario collettivo esercitando un fascino misterioso che continua fino ai nostri giorni. Lo studio radiografico delle mummie anticoegiziane ha, fin dal suo inizio, permesso di raccogliere informazioni importanti non solo dal punto di vista medico ma anche dal punto di vista antropologico e archeologico. Poco dopo la scoperta dei raggi X del 1895, Flinders Petrie ottenne la prima immagine radiografica di una mummia egizia. Da quel giorno la radiologia iniziò a indagare questi particolari pazienti. Alla fine degli anni’ 70, l’esame TAC ha permesso di approfondire lo studio, consentendo di lasciare la mummia nel suo sarcofago. Dalle immagini TAC si può ottenere la ricostruzione tridimensionale della mummia che permette di fornire altre e importanti informazioni, grazie anche all’utilizzo della tecnica di endoscopia virtuale. Inoltre, sempre partendo dai dati TAC e utilizzando sofisticati programmi di grafica elettronica, si può ottenere la ricostruzione dell’immagine del volto dell’individuo mummificato al momento della sua morte. La storia degli studi di imaging, dall’inizio a oggi, dai più semplici ai più sofisticati, ci permette di capire che essi sono stati e restano fondamentali nello studio delle mummie antico-egiziane.

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Correspondence to P. Cosmacini.

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Cosmacini, P., Piacentini, P. Notes on the history of the radiological study of Egyptian mummies: from X-rays to new imaging techniques. Radiol med 113, 615–626 (2008). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11547-008-0280-7

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Keywords

  • Diagnostic imaging
  • Mummies
  • Egypt

Parole chiave

  • Diagnostica per immagini
  • Mummie
  • Egitto