Modern medicine uncovered ancient secrets through a CT scan on a mummified toddler girl at The Palm Beach Children’s Hospital at St. Mary’s Medical Center last week.

Radiologists at The Palm Beach Children’s Hospital conducted the scans on a child mummy, part of the Afterlife: Tombs and Treasures of Ancient Egypt exhibit at the South Florida Science Center and Aquarium.

The mummy is one of five mummies and part of a collection of more than 200 authentic Egyptian artifacts on loan to the Science Center from the Bolton Museum in England. Believed to have lived in ancient Egypt during Cleopatra’s reign, the child mummy was discovered in the Fayum province of Egypt near Illahun around 1888 by the “Father of Modern Egyptology,” William Flinders Petrie.

According to Carolyn Routledge, the collection’s curator, the mummy was selected to be a part of the exhibit to illustrate that the ancient Egyptians believed children had an opportunity for an afterlife, just like adults.

“It is really rare to have such a wealthy burial for a child, so this mummy gives us insight into the ancient Egyptian attitudes toward their children – that they valued them and saw them as equals to adults,” said Routledge. “Egyptians wanted their lives to continue after death, so they made elaborate preparations. The amazing bandaging and mask on this mummy shows this level of preparation. We have a few items related to the lives of children in the exhibition. One striking piece is an ancient Egyptian child’s tunic in bright red with colorful needle work. It shows the kind of clothing a girl like this one might have worn.”

Doctors were excited to help participate with the findings. Scans revealed the “patient” was most a toddler girl, age 30-to-42-months-old, who died of appendicitis. Physicians who reviewed her scans could even see that her hair had likely been braided beneath her gilded mask. (Scans identifying the child are marked as “Girl Mummy.”)

“This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity,” said Dr. Chad Kelman, chief of radiology for the West Palm Beach hospital. “She was incredibly well-preserved and we are looking forward to correcting some earlier findings we could only determine with such detailed CT scanning.”

“This is no Halloween trick – just a treat to have this opportunity,” said Lew Crampton, CEO for the South Florida Science Center and Aquarium. “We are grateful to the team at St. Mary’s Medical Center. Thanks to medical science, technology and brilliant engineering, we are unlocking secrets today that can inform history more than 2,000 years old. It’s fascinating and quite exciting and it’s what we are all about at the South Florida Science Center. When kids and adults see this exhibit, we want them to pay attention to how STEM subjects like science, technology, engineering and math impact our everyday lives as well as shed new light on very ancient history.”

Dr. Kelman said he and his colleague, pediatric radiologist Dr. Michael Katz, first reviewed X-rays taken more than 30 years ago on the mummy. Those past scans indicated the child may have died from tuberculosis. Modern technology has allowed the doctors to find a more accurate cause of death.

“Those x-rays reveal some missing vertebrae which led physicians at the time to hypothesize that she had an infection, like TB, which may have worn away those bones,” said Dr. Kelman. “Instead, with our CT scanning, we were able to see that those vertebrae were in fact displaced – it likely happened when her organs were removed for the mummification ritual. We found an appendicolith in her right abdomen – which is an indication she may have died from a ruptured appendix.”

An appendicolith is a calcified deposit within the appendix, and doctors say they are present in a large number of children with acute appendicitis. This means that as cause of death, this could be an “incidental finding” on an abdominal radiograph or CT. Computed tomography (CT), also known as Computed Axial Tomography (CAT), is a sophisticated x-ray procedure. When evaluating a patient, multiple images are taken during a CT or CAT scan. The computer then and a compiles them into complete, cross-sectional images of soft tissue, bone, and blood vessels.

Dr. Kelman and Dr. Katz also used her height, skeletal structure in her hand and wrist bones, as well as her head circumference to determine her age – younger than the 4 to 8-year-old range previously determined by scientists. Bony structures like cheek bones, and the absence of male genitalia, led the doctors to determine that the mummified child was female.

“The opportunity to be a part of history with this most unique patient has been an incredible experience for our hospital and clinicians,” said Davide Carbone, CEO for St. Mary’s Medical Center. “While trying to diagnose this over 2000-year-old patient is certainly unconventional, it is a wonderful chance for our imaging team to utilize their training and skills in an unusual way while remaining respectful.”

“Girl Mummy”’s journey to Florida was already an adventure — the mummy got stuck in Miami – where she was part of a shipment for the exhibit held temporarily in customs because it contained ivory, a prohibited substance. She was then delicately transported by Gander and White Shipping to their West Palm Beach warehouse and then, via private transport, to her very special hospital appointment.

Gander and White donated their transport services and expertise for the task.

According to the exhibit’s chief curator, Carolyn Routledge, the scan results were very much worth the wait. The mummy hadn’t been studied for cause of death or age since 1975, and many advances in technology have been made since then.

“I was very surprised and pleased by the results,” said Routledge. It is really significant that we can see she was younger than previously suggested from the 1975 study. The new information conforms a lot better with the public reaction to the small size of the mummy. Also, I think everyone can relate to appendicitis and it is really interesting that this is what the doctors have suggested was the cause of death. We can still make close bonds to this girl and her family who lived over 2,000 years ago.”

Afterlife will remain on exhibit at the West Palm Beach venue through April 18.

[Image Credit: South Florida Science Center and Aquarium]