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Mummified singer is star of new British Museum exhibition

The Great Court of the British Museum is seen in London April 11, 2007. REUTERS/Alessia Pierdomenico
The Great Court of the British Museum is seen in London April 11, 2007. REUTERS/Alessia Pierdomenico

By Michael Roddy

LONDON (Reuters) - A singer is the star of the show in a new exhibition of mummies at the British Museum for which modern medical scanners have been used to examine eight bodies and find out what they looked like, how they lived and how they died.

The technology has helped the researchers to look through bandages and inside mummy cases that have never been opened, take images of amulets and statues stored with the body, and reproduce those objects for display at the exhibition "Ancient lives, new discoveries" which opens on May 22.

"We're getting much greater precision," said John Taylor, assistant keeper of the museum's Department of Ancient Egypt and Sudan, from which the eight mummies forming the exhibition were taken.

"It used to be very difficult to work out the age of death within less than 20 or 30 years and now we are able to pinpoint it very precisely to within a couple of years." he told a news conference on Wednesday.

One mummy whose casket had never been opened is that of a female named Tamut who lived in Thebes at about 900 BC. Inscriptions on the casket say she was a "chantress", or singer, for the god Amun, probably at the Temple of Karnak.

With the aid of 3D imagery the museum has been able to make a model of a small falcon that was sealed inside the casket along with the body. It will be displayed along with other objects and scanned images of her mummified body that the museum hopes will allow visitors for the first time to feel like they are "meeting" a person who lived thousands of years ago.

"I personally think Tamut is the star of the show, she has such a wonderful array of objects inside her case, we have the inscriptions saying all about her life, we have her name, what she really did," Taylor said.

"We can show objects and say this is the kind of thing she would have held that brings you very close to these ancient people in a way that nothing else could do."

Daniel Antoine, the museum's curator of physical anthropology, said the scans had even detected a buildup of plaque in a mummified artery. If part of that had broken away and entered the blood stream, it could have caused death by stroke or heart attack, he said.

Scanners and X-rays have been used since the 1960s to pry into cases and through bandages of mummies in the museum's collections, but recent advances in technology have allowed researchers to dig deeper and get more detail than ever before, and to make 3D visualizations which are a huge help to understanding, the specialists said.

The eight mummies come from Sudan and Egypt and span a period of time ranging from 3,500 BC to 700 AD, which covers everything from pre-dynastic Egypt to well after its absorption into the Roman Empire.

They include mummies that were properly mummified, according to the process that as Taylor put it includes taking out the brain through the nose and removing the other internal organs, and other bodies that were simply preserved by burial in sand.

Each will have its own space in the exhibition. Visitors will be able to watch images taken by scanners as they peel through caskets, bandages, skin and to the interior of the body, and see artifacts associated with each.

(Editing by Angus MacSwan)

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