Solving a Mummy Mystery

POSTED BY , ON March 31, 2014, 0 COMMENTS

You’ve waited patiently and we are happy to announce that we’re ready to share some truly shocking findings from the recent CT scans of our Egyptian mummies. But first, let’s back up for a minute.

In 1988, while on loan to The Children’s Museum of Indianapolis, the mummy Wenuhotep underwent a CT scan. Based on the information obtained from the scans, a reconstruction (pictured below) was created showing a woman—the daughter of a priest—combing her hair while holding a mirror.

Mummy Reconstruction

After the mummy returned to Chicago in 2007 the existing data was re-examined by Egyptologist Dr. Emily Teeter from the Oriental Institute Museum. The results lead to the first major discovery—that the coffin and the mummy were not a stylistic match. It states on the coffin that we have an inscription naming “Wenuhotep.” But while the coffin dates to around 780 B.C., the mummification style of the body is that of the Ptolemaic Period (323-30 B.C.). The two could have been created as many as 500 years apart. We now had an anonymous female mummy with little information other than the time period from which it was created.  So last month we set out to see if new, high-tech CT scans could help us learn more about this mystery woman. And what we learned was completely unexpected.

We enlisted the help of radiologist Dr. Michael Vannier, from the University of Chicago Medical Center and Dr. Teeter to rescan the two Art Institute mummies on February 19. Both had recently collaborated on the mummy “Meresamun” in the Oriental Institute Museum’s collection. For this project Dr. Vannier devised a new protocol using a Philips iCT spiral CT scanner on four energies (80, 100, 120, 140 KV), combining the data to give superior resolution and definition. To our knowledge, this is the first time Egyptian mummies have been examined with four energies. Dr. Vannier and Robert Klein, RT begin painstakingly reviewing the scans and creating state-of-the-art renderings.

Mummy Scan1

But even as early as when the female mummy, formally known as Wenuhotep, was on the scanning table, did Dr. Vannier begin to notice some peculiarities.   For one thing, the skeleton is robust and the stature is atypically large for a female. Additionally, the pelvis is more characteristic of a male. We had hoped to learn details of her life—if she had had children or how she may have died—but our findings began to raise different questions.

To prove his suspicions, Dr. Vannier prepared 3D and multiplanar reconstructions (MPR).  The telltale sign that something was amiss was verified by the presence of male genitalia. Turns out, the mummy is a … daddy!

Mummy Scan2

In the above image two parallel forms can be seen between the legs.  In front of the penis is a larger object. According to Dr. Teeter it is not uncommon to have some sort of structure wrapped with the penis, such as a reed, an extra roll of linen, or another type of structure thickly coated with resin. By using multi-energy scans, Dr. Vannier should be able to discern the material used for this structure.  Stay tuned for more exciting results and for theories as to why the Egyptians may have mummified the male member in this manner.  (A hint: Osiris, the fertility god.)

While reinstallation of the Egyptian galleries is still a ways off, we hope to make much of the data and images gained from this research available to the public on our website. The funding for this project, including the extensive conservation of the mummy, formally known as Wenuhotep, is generously provided by the Perucca Family Foundation. We are deeply grateful to Terry and Cynthia Perucca for their support and encouragement.

—Mary Greuel, The Elizabeth McIlvaine Assistant Curator of Ancient Art, Department of Ancient & Byzantine Art

Image Captions:

Reconstruction of Wenuhotep, Children’s Museum of Indianapolis, approximately 1989–2009

Scan of the Ptolemaic Mummy (formally known as Wenuhotep)

Scan of the Ptolemaic Mummy (formally known as Wenuhotep)



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Mystery Mummy Update

POSTED BY , ON February 25, 2014, Comments Off


In my post last week, I mentioned that both of the Art Institute’s Egyptian mummies would be CT scanned in the near future. In fact, their appointment was later that week! And now, while we await the results, I thought readers might be interested in learning about how we coordinate a project like this.

The planning took about 4 months. First, the mummies had to be examined to ensure they could make the trip without sustaining any damage. After a careful assessment by objects conservators, and a few quick treatments to reattach loose areas of linen and flaking paint, we were good to go.


Colleagues in the packing department modified the mummies’ storage crates to provide the necessary support for safe transport. This included adding interior foam structures and tyvek padding to both hold the mummies firmly in place and to absorb any bumps and vibrations they might encounter along the way.

Another interesting aspect of this project was the decision to use Superior Ambulance Service for transporting the mummies to their appointment at the University of Chicago Hospital. We typically use specially equipped trucks for transporting artworks, but ambulances are designed for moving bodies, which is exactly what we had. By modifying the hydraulic gurneys used by Superior, we were able to minimize the number of times the mummies had to be handled and moved.


Once in the scanning room, museum art handlers carefully uncrated the mummies and placed them on the scanning table. Because modern CT scanners are rarely used for full body scans, there were some challenges in getting the scans we needed. Both mummies had to be scanned once from the head down, and then manually rotated 180 degrees for a second scan from the feet up.

Mummy Scan

During the scanning, detailed images and 3D renderings were generated in a viewing area just outside of the scanning room where radiologist Dr. Michael Vannier, Egyptologist Dr. Emily Teeter, and Art Institute curator Mary Greuel saw the results as each mummy passed through the tube. Some interesting discoveries were instantly visible, such as an outer shroud around the wrappings of Paankhenamun’s head and a cylindrical object, possibly a papyrus scroll, placed alongside the arm of the female mummy.


While the final results of the scans will not be made public for some time—there are over 66,000 images to analyze!—we look forward to presenting some of our findings in future galleries of Near Eastern and Egyptian Art here at the museum.

A special thanks to Dr. Michael Vannier, Dr. Emily Teeter, Superior Ambulance Service, and Terry and Cynthia Perucca for their generous support of this project.

—Lorien Yonker, Technician & Art Handler, Department of Ancient & Byzantine Art

Image Captions:

Art Institute art handlers Lorien Yonker, Eric Warner, and Milan Bobysud place the mummy of Paankhenamun for scanning

Objects conservator Rachel Sabino inspects both mummies before approving them for travel.

Vehicles from Superior Ambulance Service, ready to transport the mummies to the University of Chicago Hospital

Art handlers finish uncrating the female mummy; Paankhenamun is placed on the table for the first round of scanning

Dr. Vannier inspects the results of Paankhenamun’s first round of scans


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Wenuhotep: Mystery Mummy

POSTED BY , ON February 17, 2014, Comments Off


There are just two ancient Egyptian mummies in the Art Institute’s collection. But while many visitors are familiar with the mummy of Paankhenamun, which stood in the Egyptian art galleries until their deinstallation in 2012, Wenuhotep, the mummy pictured above, hasn’t been on view since the beginning of the 19th century. Recent findings have also suggested that Wenuhotep’s not quite who we thought she was. . .

She was originally brought to Chicago in 1892 by Henry H. Getty and Charles L. Hutchinson, two early trustees who donated a significant proportion of the museum’s collection of Egyptian antiquities. In 1941 she was lent to the Oriental Institute at the University of Chicago. From there she traveled to the Indianapolis Children’s Museum in 1959, where she remained on display until 2007.


Upon her return to the Art Institute, Wenuhotep became the focus of a project sponsored by the Community Associates Research and Lecture Series by Dr. Emily Teeter, an Egyptologist from the Oriental Institute. In studying both the mummy and sarcophagus of Wenuhotep, Dr. Teeter quickly realized that the two were not a stylistic match. While the sarcophagus dates to around the 26th Dynasty (664-525 B.C.), the mummification style of the woman’s body is that of the Ptolemaic Period (323-30 B.C). The two could have been created as many as 500 years apart!


The hieroglyphs confirm that the sarcophagus definitely belonged to Wenuhotep. But if the woman contained inside is not Wenuhotep, then who is she? Her mummification style certainly indicates someone of status, with detailed scenes painted in vivid color and extensive gilding on the chest and head pieces. Even the soles of her sandals were painstakingly rendered. However her name is surprisingly not recorded, so her identity remains a mystery.


Some years ago the mummy underwent x-rays and CT scanning. While some of the results were lost, the reports we do have offer conflicting information regarding her age, height, and health as well as the presence of jewelry inside her wrappings and the preservation of her internal organs.

In the coming weeks radiologists from the University of Chicago will be utilizing the latest in CT scanning technology on both of the Art Institute’s mummies. The information they glean will be assessed by Egyptologists and Art Institute staff to see what can be learned about this mystery woman, and hopefully put some of the conflicting reports to rest.


Stay tuned for updates on our findings! In the meantime you can whet your appetite with gilded mummy masks and other ancient Egyptian treasures on display in When the Greeks Ruled: Egypt after Alexander the Great, on view through July 27 in gallery 154.

—Lorien Yonker, Technician & Art Handler, Department of Ancient & Byzantine Art

Image Credit: Coffin of Wenuhotep, 664 B.C.–525 B.C. Egyptian. Gift of Henry H. Getty and Charles L. Hutchinson.

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Art Scene Investigation: See What’s Cooking Behind the Scenes at the Art Institute

POSTED BY , ON December 20, 2013, Comments Off

It is a feast of food and cooking in Art and Appetite, but in our scientific laboratories we sometimes like to cook up some magic potions too.

Think of your classic “mad scientist” stereotype: white lab-coat, a murky solution ominously boiling on a hot plate, the repetitive buzzing of a magnetic stirrer, and a little smoke. That’s actually not too far off from what happens at the museum. However, here there is no black magic and nothing but the best intentions. Bbut we are cooking up some of the finest nanotechnology of the 21st century! Yes, the combination of nanotechnology and art are invincible allies for the art detective.

And similar to Art and Appetite, we’re not going to be secretive about our process. Just like a chef, we’ll share our recipe:


Dissolve a silver compound (silver nitrate, to be specific) in very pure water, bring to a vigorous boil, mix with a cousin of lemon juice (a chemical known as sodium citrate) and voilà!

If you continue to boil for 30 minutes (but not a minute longer!) while stirring continuously, the solution goes from colorless to yellow to milky grey (see above). It may look unappetizing, but it is a good sign: it means that a fine suspension of minuscule particles of silver are created. We call them nanoparticles, meaning you will have to line up 1,000 of these little handy silver beads to span the diameter of only one of your hairs.

Now what would we use this solution to accomplish? Well, when you love something, or someone, you just want to know everything about the object of your passion. Think about how often we check on our Facebook friends or tend to Instagram. So here at the Art Institute when we look at a painting, we dig deeply into it. There’s no small detail that is unimportant. Which is where our mysterious solution comes in. . .

Take, for example, Renoir’s Woman at the Piano:


We want to understand just who is the lady in the white dress? How did Renoir lay his brush onto the canvas? What changes did he make while he was painting? (One major change: she was once slightly turning away from us, and was a little less fashionably coiffed). Where did he buy his canvas? Did he have to walk a long way from his studio or was he just going around the corner? Too bad Renoir did not have Instagram. . . but the art detective has SERS! Short for Surface-Enhanced Raman Spectroscopy (I know, it is a mouthful and it has nothing to do with Ramen noodles), this is a scientific tool with superpowers.

For decades now museum scientists have done a good job at identifying the crushed minerals that artists used to make most of their colors, but look at the blush of pink on the woman’s cheek, at the purple shadow on her piano, at the scarlet profile of the sheets of her music. Those are tricky ones to figure out. They are  in fact painted with red lakes, pigments created by reacting the red juices extracted from plants or insects with whitish mineral materials to create an opaque paint material. Yes, you are not mistaken, some of the lustrous scarlets on Impressionists masterpieces (and many other works throughout the history of human creativity, including that lipstick I put on last night and the strawberry flavored drink I have enjoyed all summer long) are nothing but the essence of some exotic bug. Bugs and art? It’s not totally out of character: artists have always been able to find beauty in unexpected places.


These insects and plants make such beautiful reds and pinks and, like truffle oil in the kitchen, a little goes a long way so you need very little material to make a beautiful, strong, color. But what is a beauty for the artist can be a maddening mystery for the scientist. The colors are so strong, yet so elusive when you try to figure out where they are coming from.

Enter nanotechnology and the boiling glass-beaker we talked about before. Add just one drop of that grayish solution on one of the very small and precious samples our conservators take of the original paint, shine some laser light on the combo and the magic happens; we have nailed our suspect.


We want to jump for joy, and with SERS, the signal that we detect for our mystery compound is so strong and so enhanced in the Renoir painting that it feels like jumping on a trampoline.


Look at this slice of paint taken from the painting (we call it a cross–section). If you illuminate it with UV light, you can see that the scarlet layer at the top  is actually made of two different red  pigments, one that fluoresces orange, the other not. This is also visible if you expose the entire painting to black light. Take a look below at where Renoir “applied blush” to enhance the pink and purple tones, glowing orange in the dark:


On that minuscule sample, no bigger than a grain of fine table salt, and with this technique of analysis called Surface-Enhanced Raman Spectroscopy we are able to determine that for the red pigment, Renoir used not only the Mexican bug cochineal (image immediately below), but also the fruit of a plant (the root of madder, bottom image) to decorate the carpet, the blush on her cheeks, and many other parts of the painting.



Mystery solved: call it glow in the dark science!

—Francesca Casadio, Andrew W. Mellon Senior Conservation Scientist

Image Credits:

All images courtesy of Federica Pozzi and Kelly Keegan, except:

Pierre-Auguste Renoir. Woman at the Piano, 1875/76. Mr. and Mrs. Martin A. Ryerson Collection.

7th image:

8th image:

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Tiny Treasures from Ancient Egypt

POSTED BY , ON December 06, 2013, Comments Off

amulet leg

Microscopic ornaments bedazzle a Lilliputian Christmas tree. A tiny dreidel is tucked into a box. Miniscule mistletoe hangs from a chandelier. For the holidays, tiny festive additions have been added to the Thorne Rooms, which delight in their miniaturization of period rooms, to greet the season. In the galleries of European art, a masterwork of miniatures unfolds in the Neapolitan Crèche. But further into the Art Institute, another set of tiny treasures is debuting for the holidays.

heart amulet

For the first time in over 50 years, 38 ancient Egyptian amulets are on view in When the Greeks Ruled: Egypt After Alexander the Great, a special exhibition in gallery 154 of the Mary and Michael Jaharis Galleries of Greek, Roman, and Byzantine Art. Despite their diminutive size, these amulets pack a lot of power and magic. For the ancient Egyptian, one prepared for life after death by providing all the accoutrements of daily life and assurances for rebirth into the afterlife in the tomb, one’s eternal home. One also needed to guarantee that the body itself would be in working order in the afterlife. The two-centimeter long leg (top image) and foot amulets were typically encased in the wrappings of the mummified body at the ankle to assure the ability to walk. Likewise, a glass heart amulet (image immediately above) was placed on the upper torso to protect what Egyptians considered to be the most important organ of the body. To them, the heart was the origin of thought, emotions, and a storehouse for memories; the heart amulet takes the form of a vessel.  One of the most popular amulets was the wedjat (image below), or Eye of Horus, that has the iconic markings of a falcon. In a divine battle the god Horus was blinded by the god Seth, however, the eye of Horus rejuvenated and became a symbol of rebirth. Amulets were also worn by the living as protective, and even magical, talismans.

Amulets wedjats

While a group of spectacularly small amulets glitter in the galleries, there are over 700 Egyptian amulets in the Art Institute’s collection, including a one-inch silver hatchet, many half-inch stone headrests, centimeter-long animals such as cows, frogs, geese, and rabbits. Each of these, though seemingly mundane, carried symbolism of power or regeneration. Amulets were so popular that they were made and used continuously from around 3000 B.C. to the Ptolemaic period (330 B.C.-30 B.C.), which is the focus of the exhibition, and even into the Coptic Christian period in the 4th century A.D.

Amulets Egypt of godesses

Because of their minute size, these amulets are actually some of the most complicated types of artworks to display. For the exhibition, each amulet received a custom-made mount, or apparatus that securely holds the object while carefully placed padding protects their delicate surfaces. These mounts are tightly fitted into holes drilled directly into the back of the case. For the smallest amulets, such as the golden Eyes of Horus seen in the above photo, pins coated in plastic to protect the artwork hold the amulets in place. When working on such a small scale, exact measurements are key!

Amulets Egypt Mary and Lorien

Stop by the exhibit When the Greeks Ruled Egypt, which is open through July 27, and explore the myriad of amulets, including a pantheon of Egyptian gods and goddesses that can fit in the palm of your hand. But don’t let their diminutive size fool you, the ancient Egyptians made amulets with the design that their power would last unto eternity.

—Terah Walkup, Research Associate, Department of Ancient and Byzantine Art

Image credits:

Leg and Foot Amulet. Egyptian, Late Old Kingdom – First Intermediate Period, Dynasties 5-11, (about 2494-2055 B.C.). Carnelian; 2 x 1 x .25 cm (3/4 x 3/8 x 1/8 in.). The Art Institute of Chicago, gift of Charles L. Hutchinson, 1894.861.

Heart Amulet. Egyptian, New Kingdom, Dynasty 18, (about 1550–1295  B.C.). Glass, rod formed technique; 2.1 x 1.9 x 0.6 cm (7/8 x 3/4 x 1/4 in.). The Art Institute of Chicago, gift of Charles L. Hutchinson, 1894.855.

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