New technology reveals old treasures

It’s mummy mania at Medelhavsmuseet in Stockholm. Through advanced 3D technology, visitors can explore a mummy layer by layer.

It’s a Friday afternoon and Stockholm’s Medelhavsmuseet – the Museum of Mediterranean and Near Eastern Antiquities – opened just 30 minutes ago. But the guard at the door has to put a stop to things.

“We can’t have more than three hundred people in here at the same time,” he says to the quickly forming queue.

From now on it’s one in, one out, just like at a popular nightclub. The new permanent exhibition on Egypt has proven a great success for the museum.

Inside, visitors flock around the visualisation table. Here, anyone who wants to can dissect a mummy that is more than 2,500 years old. Coffins and wrappings peel away layer by layer, right down to the skeleton.

11-year-old Oscar quickly gets the hang of the technology.

“This is really cool. What do you want to look at? Do you want to see the head or the legs? Or the amulets?”

He manoeuvres the table easily, enlarges the image, turns the skull around and points out the spinal canal on Neswaiu the mummy.

“A gold amulet,” he says thoughtfully. “Why did they put a gold amulet where the tongue should be? And what did they do with the brain after they took it out?”

Without waiting for a reply, he disappears to go look at the real Neswaiu, lying in his coffin a short distance away.

The mummy Neswaiu at the visualisation tableNeswaiu’s final rest has never been disturbed since he was mummified sometime around 200 BC. He has never been “unwrapped” as parlour entertainment, which was common in the 1800s. Instead we can see what he looks like with the help of X-rays using computer tomography, in combination with laser scanning and photogrammetry. The images are incredibly detailed and can be enlarged and studied in detail in 3D.

“Although I don’t really think we have the ancient Egyptians’ blessing to do that either,” says Sofia Häggman, Egyptologist at Medelhavsmuseet, and smiles.

“A naked mummified body isn’t pretty; the Egyptians didn’t think so either. They even put beautiful masks over their mummified bodies.”

Dr Häggman was present when Neswaiu was X-rayed at Linköping University. It was a strange feeling.

“He was X-rayed in the 70s, but the images weren’t at all as clear. It was very exciting to see his body in detail. A dried body is very different from a fresh body.”

When Neswaiu was mummified, his brain was removed and replaced with resin. His organs were removed and treated separately before being put back in four linen packages.

The X-rays also showed that Neswaiu is one of the most richly decorated mummies studied so far: he has 120 amulets attached to his body. Amulets played an important role in ancient Egypt: people believed that they had protective power.

Golden amulet that belonged to the mummy NeswaiuPreviously, we could only see the amulets as a clump on the chest in the X-rays. But with the new technology it is possible to distinguish them one by one.

“And not just that – with the help of 3D scanning and 3D printing, as well as traditional metal casting, one of Neswaiu’s amulets has been recreated in a new physical form. That’s incredibly exciting,” Dr Häggman says.

It’s a golden amulet that the embalmers placed on the mummy under the wrappings for protection. The amulet is shaped like a falcon, which had links to the god Horus.

Neswaiu’s rich decorations are probably due to the fact that he himself was rich. He was a scribe and a priest in Thebes, back in the day. He came to Sweden in 1826 as a gift from the consul general in Egypt.

The project of digitalising and rendering Neswaiu took place in collaboration with Interactive Institute Swedish ICT at Visualization Center C in Norrköping, and the Center for Medical Image Science and Visualization, CMIV, at Linköping University.

“Presenting a mummy like this gives the museum visitor a much stronger, more educationally rich experience. They can touch, turn, experience and explore. In a way, the visitor also becomes a researcher. The border is blurred,” says Thomas Rydell, project manager and studio head of Interactive Institute Swedish ICT.

One of his driving forces is making collections of historical cultural treasures, research and natural historical objects more accessible, in museums but also over the internet.

“We want to help museums set a new standard for how they can work with 3D digitalisation and interactive visualisation, to make collections more accessible to museums, researchers, and visitors.”

But does the technology hold up under any amount of hands-on activity?

“Haha, yes, we use hardware that’s adapted for public environments in the visualisation table. In Singapore, we have a table that’s been part of an installation for three years now without anything going wrong.”

Text: Sofia Ström Bernad
Photo: Ove Kaneberg, Anders Persson et al
LiU magazine no.2, 2014
5 June 2014