The Virtual Autopsy is the nondestructive technique used by contemporary researchers to analyze the artifacts and culture of ancient Egypt.
It tells the captivating story of the “virtual unwrapping” of an Egyptian mummy and the interdisciplinary project that allowed researchers at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign to investigate the person inside by way of an autopsy performed by computer.
The mummy, acquired by the university’s Spurlock Museum in 1989, was from the Fayum region of Egypt and is dated to about 100 a.d. Although other mummy projects have used destructive analytical techniques, the Spurlock mummy was never even unwrapped.
Faculty and staff members from area hospitals and University of Illinois departments including classics, anthropology, chemistry, textile sciences, and entomology were recruited by the Program on Ancient Technologies and Archaeological Materials for the project.
The interdisciplinary team implemented a research plan that relied on medical imaging techniques including X rays and CT scans. They also utilized for the first time in the history of mummy research a Cray II supercomputer — at the university’s National Center for Supercomputing Applications — to render three-dimensional images of the mummy’s skull and body.