Secrets of a 2,000-Year-Old Child

Scientists use high-resolution X rays to produce astonishing images of a girl who died too young

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SILICON GRAPHICS & STANFORD

HIGH CONTRAST: The ancient mummy on the bed of an ultramodern scanner

She lived at the time of Christ, but not for very long. By about age 5, this little Egyptian girl, less than 4 ft. tall, had passed on to what her people believed was the next life. In preparation for the journey, her body's internal organs--all except for the heart--had been removed and replaced with aromatic preservatives. Then she was wrapped in cloth, mummified and placed in a casing made of a papier-mâché--like material called cartonnage.

There she lay for the next 2,000 years--first in Egypt and then for the past 80 years or so in the Rosicrucian Egyptian Museum in San Jose, Calif. But for several months, the girl--who has been nicknamed Sherit, an ancient Egyptian word meaning "little one"--has been visiting the Stanford-NASA National Biocomputation Center in nearby Palo Alto. There, doctors and other scientists, working with imaging experts from Silicon Graphics, have been unwrapping her--not physically, which would cause enormous damage, but virtually. Using more than 60,000 high-resolution X-ray images from scans that produce 35 times as much information as the scans of King Tut released earlier this year, the team has put together a three-dimensional portrait of what lies within her casing.

By looking at her bones, for example, the scientists determined that Sherit was probably able to walk normally and didn't have any debilitating chronic diseases. Most likely she succumbed to an infection or bad water or tainted food, as did some 50% of ancient Egyptian children within a year or two of being weaned. The bones and teeth also helped fix her age; her adult teeth hadn't grown in yet. And her gilded face mask indicated that her parents were wealthy. With higher-res scans, scientists may someday make out the hieroglyphs on the inside of the cartonnage--and thus, perhaps, give the little one back her rightful name.