By Joe Ferguson
One day in grad school, I sat nose deep in a spinal radiograph trying to figure out what was wrong. My radiology professor sat down next to me, took out her pen, and traced a small circle over an empty patch of gray—she then tapped her pen over a circular radiopacity a couple of centimeters to the left. “There should be two circles,” she said. “It’s called winking owl and it’s a sign of metastasis. To be good at radiology, you have to have a good imagination.”
We rarely use the term imagination in the hard sciences. It seems particularly paradoxical in the black-and-white world of radiology, but the truth is that radiographs aren’t really black and white. They present as abstract images—surrealistic osteological clouds floating in a sky of varying shades of gray. We sometimes need imagination to make sense of what we see. In radiology, it may mean constructing a meaningful picture out of abstract imagery by linking it to mental references—in the case above, a winking owl.
The Future of the Past: Mummies and Medicine is a new exhibit at San Francisco’s Legion of Honor. Scientists, Egyptologists, physicians, museum curators and conservators worked together to merge “science and technology, archaeology and history, medicine, culture and art with Egyptian religion and magic.”
Radiology encompasses a broad range of technologies beyond plain-film radiographs. New technology allows us to view structures in vivid color, in three dimensions, and even to interact with images by enlarging them, rotating them, or infinitely adjusting contrast. These capabilities can result in artistic and informative media when utilized by imaginative professionals.
On display in The Future of the Past: Mummies and Medicine is a showcase of Egyptian antiquities including two mummies and their coffins, examples of amulets, and tomb furnishings from the museum’s collection.
Most interesting are high-resolution, three-dimensional computed tomography (CT) scans of the two mummies conducted at Stanford Medical School’s Department of Radiology. Through the scanning techniques, the interdisciplinary team discovered how funerary beliefs and mummification practices changed during Egypt’s history.
One mummy is Irethorrou, a powerful Egyptian priest who lived about 2,600 years ago. He was buried in the famed necropolis of Akhmim, about 290 miles south of Cairo. His body is exceptionally well preserved with the heavy use of pistachio resin that was imported from Asia Minor. Amulets were placed on his mummified body, while tiny figurines and scarabs assured his proper burial and his upper-class status in the afterlife.
The second mummy is a woman traditionally known as Hatason. She was buried 200 miles from Cairo in Asyut, about 500 years before Irethorrou. Linen wrappings and the absence of resin allowed her body to decompose significantly. The degree of decomposition and condition of her sarcophagus suggest she was of a lower social class than her compatriot.
Both mummies can be examined by means of a virtual dissection table supplied by Anatomage. Through interacting with the table, visitors can recreate the CT scan and virtually remove the lids of the coffins. Skull models and forensic facial reconstructions of both mummies are also on display.
Accompanying the exhibit is an installation by Los Angeles-based artist RETNA, who created an intriguing design of graffiti art influenced by Egyptian hieroglyphs for the gallery walls.
The exhibit represents the scientific and artistic outcomes of a unique, creative collaboration—it is more than a conglomerate of investigative methods. Through the imaginative display of scientific data, The Future of the Past: Mummies and Medicine helps us to make something more concrete and tangible out the facts of historical abstraction. We see social class, scientific progress, and a desire to live beyond the confines of our physical selves—situations and objectives that mirror our own.
The Future of the Past: Mummies and Medicine runs through August 26th, 2018.