In the hushed early-morning hours Sunday, a team of anthropologists gingerly lifted a plain white box, roughly three-feet long, and slid it into the back of a staffer's SUV parked in front of the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology. There was nothing remarkable about the foam-core box. And that's exactly how the museum staff planned it, so as not to catch the attention of thieves.
It held a 2,000-year-old treasure: a child mummy that had come to Philadelphia by way of Egypt.
"Unfortunately, there's an antiquities market around the world. Things have value," explained James Mathieu, head of collections at Penn Museum on South Street, near 32nd Street. "You just have to be smart about not screaming out to the world, 'Hey, I'm a target.'"
About 7:30 a.m., museum curators and anthropologists transported the mummified remains a short distance to a loading dock at Children's Hospital of Philadelphia. There, they were met by Sabah Servaes, a pediatric radiologist who agreed to conduct a CT, or cat scan, on the mummy — a first in the hospital's 163-year-old history.
Penn Museum staff already knew some things about the ancient remains. They believe the remains are of a girl, based on the painted decorations on the plaster mask and linen shroud. She lived about 270 to 280 AD — a "newer mummy," given that she was born roughly 1,000 years after King Tut. The style of her shroud indicates she lived in a region of Egypt under Roman control at the time near what is now the city of Luxor. An X-ray, taken about a year ago, revealed "skeletal abnormalities," anthropologist Samantha Cox noted.
"She looks like she's the size of a 2-year-old, but her skeletal development, the growth of her teeth and bones, is more like a 5-year-old," Cox said. "Maybe a type of dwarfism."
There was so much more to learn, and Cox and her colleagues hoped that a CT scan, which can produce a 3-D image, would help solve the mystery of how she died or whether she suffered from any disease.
"It's likely she still has some organs," Cox said.
She would soon find out.
Ancient Egyptians practiced some form of mummification over a span of 5,000 years. "They believed that the person's life force would return to its own body after they died so they made every effort possible to preserve the body," said Jen Wegner, an Egyptologist and associate curator at the museum.
Typically, the internal organs were removed and the body was "dried out" by packing it in salt for about 70 days. Then the body was "anointed with oils" and wrapped in layers of linen, which is painted with designs that protect the dead, said Wegner.
At a CHOP loading dock, security guards rolled out a child-sized hospital gurney draped with a blue sheet. Wegner and Mathieu carefully carried the mummy from the back of the car to the gurney. The idea was to use a private elevator to bring the mummy up to the radiology department on the second floor, but they couldn't get it to work. The group maneuvered to a different back entrance.
"She's been waiting almost 2,000 years so I guess she can wait a little longer," joked Yael Eytan, the museum's director of marketing and communications.
"Is she cursed?" Wegner laughed, eyeing the box.
"She's too little to be cursed," Cox said.
Once upstairs in radiology, museum staff opened the box, removing bubble wrap and paper tissue to reveal the tiny mummy with an ornate mask and linen painted with images of Anubis, a funerary god in the form of a jackal, and Sokar, a god shaped like a falcon, along with lotus flowers, a symbol of birth and regeneration.
The whole scene felt surreal to CHOP security guard Rachel Wherry, who volunteered to stand sentry over the mummy. "This is history right here," she said.
CHOP radiologic technologist Felicia Williams, wearing purple rubber gloves, positioned the mummy and then went into an adjoining control room to run the CT machine, the outside of which was painted with colorful zoo animals. "We ready to rock-and-roll?" Williams asked radiologists.
Unlike with a pediatric patient, doctors didn't have to worry about using the highest dose of radiation to produce the best details. Williams took 5,202 images in horizontal and vertical slices, which are then layered together to form a 3-D reconstruction.
Within minutes, the team of radiologists and anthropologists huddled around computers said they could see that some of her organs were still there. Her ribs and teeth are mostly intact, but the girl's skull had collapsed into pieces. Cox said she is pretty sure the damage to the skull occurred long after death.
"Basically, the way bone fractures once someone has been dead for a while is different than the way it fractures when people are alive," Cox said. "You can see the fracture patterns, and it doesn't hold its shape and it breaks a little more like glass does, so at a lot of right angles that are very sharp. When you are alive, it breaks more like a windshield on a car, like kind of rounded spider cracks, which we don't really see here."
In fact, many parts of the skeleton appear to have been damaged post-mummification. (Archaeologists excavated her sometime in the late 19th century.)
"You can see the knees don't quite line up the way they should and the feet are gone. They've actually been placed on top of the shin bones," Cox said, "and that whole disturbance is probably from even after she was mummified. It might be from when they excavated her and they kind of knocked things around."
Cox and CHOP radiologist Seth Vatsky noted a curve in the girl's spine, an indication that perhaps the girl had suffered from scoliosis. Servaes, the other radiologist, pointed out what she calls "growth recovery lines," or dense lines in the bones that could mean the girl's growth development bounced back after an illness or injury.
"It's a positive term," Servaes said. "In the living, we really like that."
"Oh, I see. I'm not used to working with living people," Cox said, laughing slightly. They're called "Harris lines," or growth arrest lines, in archaeology.
"It's basically if you had an episode where you aren't growing properly, maybe because you don't have proper nutrition or because you've been very, very sick, but something where your body has got to put all that energy into more surviving, than growing, but then recovers from it," Cox said, adding that it's hard to know whether the condition led to her death.
Cox said they will continue to study the CT images closely in coming weeks to see what other mysteries — or answers — the mummy may yield.