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3DVisA Index of 3D Projects: Anthropology

Mummy. The Inside Story

In the summmer of 2004 the British Museum, working with Silicon Graphics Incorporated (SGI), showed an immersive visualisation of the mummy of the Egyptian priest Nesperennub.

Nesperennub lived around 800 BC. The hieroglyphic text on his coffin indicates that he was a priest at Karnak, like his father. He was approximately forty years old when he died of an unknown cause. A small hole in his skull, above the left eye, puzzles the experts. His body was embalmed with resin in accordance with customary ritual. A bowl used by the embalmer was left, possibly accidently, and stuck to the head. The body was placed in a coffin with some amulets, and then finely decorated. The mummy was discovered at Luxor in the 1890s and entered the British Museum collection in 1899. The coffin is 173 cm long.

The 3D visualisation created by SGI was based on medical tomography and used stereo technology in an immersive 3D environment. It allowed for a non-invasive examination of the structure of the mummy. It revealed much new information about Nesperennub and an unprecedented level of detail about the corpse and the embalming process, including the mysterious bowl on the head. Mummies have been examined in the past, famously during public spectacles in the 19th century, but they were often permanently damaged in the process. X-ray offered a new method of a non-invasive examination. The mummy of Nesperennub was x-rayed in the 1960s. The possibilities offered by three-dimensional digital visualisation used in today's medicine are incomparable.

The mummy was scanned using computer tomography (CT) at the National Hospital for Neurology and Neurosurgery in London and laser-scanned in 3D, in Scotland. Some 1500 cross-sectional images were reassembled, edited and rendered as single-volume data to create the final real-time visualisation.

A SGI Reality Center with a 4 by 12 meter curved screen was installed at the British Museum for the display. This 112-seat immersive environment was designed and installed by SGI Professional Services with Fakespace Systems Inc. It was powered by a 12-processor SGI® Onyx® 350 with three InfiniteReality4™ graphics subsystems, 6GB RAM, and 1.5TB of disk space. The installation at the British Museum marked the tenth anniversary of SGI Reality Centers and was the 669th such centre installed by SGI since July 1994.

Wearing 3D-stereo glasses spectators were able to watch the virtual ‘unwrapping’ of the mummy in a 22-minute film. They could look through the painted cartonnage case and layers of linen, and examine the incisions made in the corpse for the removal of organs; look at layers of soft tissue and the skeleton. The 3D visualisation was combined with digital reconstruction of Nesperennub's face. The latter was based on forensic techniques for computing the depth of the soft-tissue. The digital ‘clay’ face eventually morphed into an actor who dramatised the priest’s life in ancient Egypt of the 22nd Dynasty. The actor, Sir Ian McKellen, narrated the film.

In a gallery adjacent to the stereo projection, the actual mummy and other artefacts, some of which featured in the visulisation, were displayed together with explanatory material.

Project dates: 2002(?)-2004

Resource status: Still images available from the British Museum and SGI websites.

Contributors: Professor David Hughes, Manager of Advanced Visualization, Silicon Graphics, Inc. (SGI); Dr John Taylor, Department of Ancient Egypt and Sudan, The British Museum et al.; Sponsored by British Petroleum (BP). BP have been using SGI Reality Center environments to assist the process of oil discovery.

Sources and further details:

Taylor, J.H. (2004), Mummy. The Inside Story, London: British Museum Press; Reviewed by Sternberg, E. M. (2005), Science, Vol. 308, No. 5727, 3 June, p. 1415.

Mummy. The Inside Story, a virtual tour on the British Museum website.

N.N. (2005), Diagnostic Imaging: CT scans unwrap secrets of British Museum's Egyptian mummies, Medical Technology. Business: Europe, 7 April.

N.N. (2004), Mummy: Inside Story. Archaeology meets Advanced Visualization with SGI Technology, A feature article on the Silicon Graphics Inc. website.

Record compiled by Anna Bentkowska-Kafel. Last updated: 11 September 2006.

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