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The Honolulu Advertiser

Posted on: Sunday, January 23, 2005

UH expert monitors mummies in Egypt

By Beverly Creamer
Advertiser Education Writer

A University of Hawai'i scientist involved in the CT-scanning of King Tutankhamen, Egypt's most famous mummy, also is working on a grander project — cataloging all the mummies of ancient Egypt.

Was King Tutankhamen murdered? Scientists hope advanced technology will provide a clue.

Advertiser library photo • March 24, 2004

DeWolfe Miller, UH Medical School professor of epidemiology, is also an important player in researching health and disease in ancient Egypt by scanning hundreds of 3,000-year-old mummies.

"The major part of the work I've been doing over the past year is building a database of these antiquities," said Miller, by phone from Egypt. "Last year for a couple of months in the winter, Robert Littman and I were in an oasis going through tombs where the mummies are and doing a systematic survey of everything we find out there in the middle of nowhere."

Littman is a UH historian and classics professor who specializes in ancient medicine, offers a course in hieroglyphics once a decade, and has been working in Egypt with Miller and UH students on archaeology projects.

There is international excitement surrounding efforts to scan Tut — and potentially discover whether he was murdered — and Miller's good friend, Zahi Hawass, head of the Supreme Council of Antiquities in Egypt, heads the project.

DeWolfe Miller, UH Medical School professor of epidemiology, works on mummies at the Egyptian Museum in Cairo.

Photo courtesy DeWolfe Miller

Hawass has promised to reveal answers later this month, but Miller wonders if that might be too soon to finish all the computer analysis necessary.

Hawass has announced that the skull is intact.

"When you look at the CT-scan you should be able to say if he was clobbered on the head," Miller said. "Where's the gash on the head? There really isn't one."

Miller has been part of the enterprise from the start, helping to choose the most appropriate CT-scanner for the work, one built by the German company Siemens, and getting funding from National Geographic, which filmed the project. That documentary will be released in conjunction with an exhibit of objects from Tut's tomb that will tour the United States this year. Proceeds from the exhibit will go toward building a grand new museum in Egypt.

Miller helped get the equipment to Egypt, develop protocols for the scanning, then set up the scanner and tune it. Hawass' group scanned several other mummies before Tut to make sure the scanner worked.

Zahi Hawass, left, head of the Supreme Council for Antiquities in Egypt, helps prepare the 3,300-year-old mummy of King Tut for X-ray.

Advertiser library photo • Jan. 5, 2005

While mummies have been scanned with modern equipment for years — Tut was first scanned by X-ray 36 years ago — this is the most advanced scanner used. The equipment took 1,700 images of Tut in less than 15 minutes on Jan. 5, and this multitude of images is being manipulated by computer to analyze the teenage king's cause of death.

Tut has achieved what Miller calls "rock star" status in the global consciousness since his discovery in 1922, partly that earlier X-ray showed bone fragments inside the mummy's skull, and partially inspired by the golden treasures buried with him and now on display at the Cairo Museum.

"This is Egyptological Hollywood," said Miller. "It was a big stunning discovery in the early part of the 20th century — an undisturbed royal tomb full of golden treasures.

"The opulence of this kid's burial is phenomenal. Even though it was an insignificant burial, the artwork that went into this is unsurpassed. But who was he? Not a really big dude in the whole Egypt thing."

Miller, who has made the underground journey into Tut's tomb several times, called it one of the more modest of the royal burial places.

"It's small, one of the smallest I've been in," he said. "First you go down an underground corridor, then into a room that was the outermost chamber. Then, after a few small side chambers, you're in the main tomb chamber. That's it. Every other tomb in the Valley of the Kings has multiple rooms."

Unlike other royal tombs whose rooms are elaborately painted, the only decorated part of Tut's tomb is the area where the sarcophagus lies, said Miller. The sarcophagus itself — which holds coffin and mummy — was carved from a single piece of pink granite. Miller believes it must have been carved in place because it's too large for the entrance.

While scientists still don't completely understand the process of mummification, the Egyptians used it to preserve virtually everything "that flew and swam and walked," said Miller. "They mummified huge bulls as well as mice. My favorites are two little shrews about an inch long."

Reach Beverly Creamer at bcreamer@honoluluadvertiser.com or 525-8013.