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Ancient Egypt

"Naked scanners" being used to research mummies

A new use for airport screening technology

London

Scientists are employing a new controversial imaging technique used by airport screeners in their investigation of ancient Egyptian mummies. High-frequency terahertz scanners, more popularly known as “naked scanners” because they produce a naked image of the individual being x-rayed, are being used in Germany and Switzerland to explore beneath the wrappings of mummified animals and parts of mummified humans.

When used on humans, the body’s water content prevents the waves of the scanner from penetrating the surface of the skin. It only penetrates the individual’s clothing, making it a valuable tool for detecting concealed weapons. However, the tissue of a mummy is almost water-free, making it possible for the waves to penetrate the skin. Unlike traditional x-ray technology which can damage the mummy’s DNA, “naked scanners” emit a non-ionising radiation which is not harmful. Preserving DNA fragments is essential as it can help scientists detect vital information such as the presence of disease.

Dr Markus Walther and Andrea Bitzer from the University of Freiburg’s Materials Research Centre were first to propose the use of “naked scanners” on mummies. Dr Frank Rühli, the head of the Swiss Mummy Project at the University of Zurich’s Institute of Anatomy, said that although the image produced is not as clear as an x-ray, in the future the technology may enable scientists to identify various types of embalming substances. Rühli has used the scanner in his research since 2008. Thus far, researchers have not used this technology on an intact human mummy, only small animals and parts of mummified humans.

The introduction of “naked scanners” at airports across the US, Australia and Europe beginning in 2008 drew ire from several public interest groups who claimed the procedure was an invasion of privacy.

As we went to press, the results of this study were slated to appear in an upcoming edition of the American Journal for Physical Anthropology.

Originally appeared in The Art Newspaper as 'Show me the mummy'

Appeared in The Art Newspaper Archive, 213 May 2010