Jim's Blog

New X-Ray Technique Reveals Mummy Under Wraps : A Well Thought Out Scream by James Riordan

The primary problem in trying to study a mummy is that if you take the wrappings off, the body disintegrates before you can do much examination.  The idea for using a high-energy particle accelerator for the examination came after one of the co-curators, Essi Rönkkö, stumbled upon a fully intact mummy, with portrait still attached, at the Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary on the Northwestern campus.

“We had a whole intact mummy right here on campus,” Marc Walton,  a materials scientist at Northwestern, said. “The museum community didn’t know it was there.” A wealthy Chicago family, the Hibbards, had financed Egyptian excavations in the early 20th century and received the mummy as a gift, which they donated to the theological seminary.

In a stroke of luck, the mummy originated from the same region of Egypt as the portraits that the team had already been collecting for the exhibition.

The Hibbard mummy contains the body of a young Egyptian girl, estimated to be around 5 years old when she died at the end of the first century A.D. She lived in an agricultural community west of the Nile, and likely died of a disease like smallpox or malaria.

The mummy is noted for its “embedded portrait,” a realistic-looking face painted onto a wood panel rather than sculpted into a facade like mummies in popular culture. That portrait, along with the fact that the mummy was fully intact, was what first caught the attention of one of the seminary collection’s curators and resulted in the research team studying it with the particle accelerator.




The “embedded portrait.” Northwestern University




Walton and a colleague from the classics department, Taco Terpstra, enlisted the help of undergraduate and graduate students in analyzing the mummy’s material makeup with a variety of specialized scans.


Olivia Dill, a first year art history Ph.D. candidate, is helped conduct a CT scan of the Hibbard mummy to discern how she died. With no visible injuries, the researchers think the girl likely succumbed to a disease, such as smallpox or malaria.

Researchers temporarily removed the mummy from its home in a collection at the Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary at Northwestern University and brought it to the Argonne National Laboratory, located just outside Chicago. There, they used the Advanced Photon Source—the brightest X-ray source in the Western hemisphere—to look inside without risking any damage.

Archaeologists have used X-rays before. In 2016, Wired reported that X-rays were allowing researchers to read ancient texts that had been buried inside mummy-containing coffins. High-definition CT scans have been used to look at mummies too. This, however, is the first time a high-energy particle accelerator, which is usually intended for physics-based research as opposed to medical or biological, has been used to look at mummified remains. 

According to an Argonne National Laboratory press release, the mummy weighs about 50 pounds. It also contains more than just the girl’s remains. Mum2The scientists aren’t sure what the object placed in her skull was used for. Northwestern University

But the CT scan revealed other hidden secrets. Wrapped to the little girl’s belly was some kind of small object.

“The resolution on the CT scan is such that we can only barely make out a shape. We think it’s some sort of stone, but we’re not sure,” Olivia Dill, a first year art history Ph.D. candidate who helped conduct the scan, told PBS NewsHour.”

Dill is most excited about examining the two dozen small pins inserted into the wrappings around the feet and head of the mummy. It is unclear “whether they are modern additions possibly due to conservation efforts or if they are contemporary to the rest of the mummy,” Dill said. “We’re hoping that the analysis at the Argonne lab will enable us to identify the material a little more specifically.”

The X-ray allowed researchers to examine the rich assortment of objects that had been buried inside along with the girl’s body. Shards, possibly from a bowl-like object made of tar (as opposed to glass) had been placed inside her skull after the brain was removed during the mummification process. Wires, the nature of which are unknown, were found in her teeth. And a small, mysterious object had been wrapped to her stomach.

Mum6The Advanced Photon Source facility of Argonne National Laboratory speeds up electrons along a 3,600 foot circular track to produce high energy x-rays. These beams are used for high-resolution imaging of various materials, from pharmaceutical to microelectronics.

Walton and company opted for this particle accelerator scan because it not only reveals material composition, but characteristics like density and shape — without physically altering the mummy. Archaeologists have employed the Advanced Photon Source in the past, but never for mummified remains, the team said.

After working through the night, Stuart Stock, a cell and molecular biologist at the Feinberg School of Medicine at Northwestern University who led the Advanced Photon Source experiment, shared some preliminary findings with the NewsHour.

Mum4Northwestern University’s Hibbard mummy lived during the late first century A.D. Her home was located in an agricultural community in the Faiyum oasis just west of the Nile, at the crossroads of a fading Egyptian and growing Roman empire. And recently a team of scientists carted her off for a 24-hour session with the particle accelerator. The experiment at the Advanced Photon Source at Argonne National Laboratory used high energy X-rays to further probe the material composition of numerous objects embedded deep inside the mummy without damaging its remains. This is a far cry from the mummy unwrapping parties that were popular in Victorian England when Egyptomania gripped the nation in the 19th century. Performed in the name of science and entertainment, those crude experiments tore into mummies, destroying many specimens in the process. But times have changed, and so has technology.

“Our main motivation is to use the physical sciences to be able to unpack the technology of art,” Marc Walton, a materials scientist at Northwestern and one of the project’s leaders, told PBS. “We’re trying to get into the mind of the artist to understand why they’re making certain choices based upon the economics of the materials, their physical structure, and then use that information to be able to rewrite history.”Mum7


A reconstruction of the bowl-shaped object in the Hibbard mummy’s skull. Photo by Northwestern Memorial Hospital


“The shards within the skull do not show any evidence of crystallinity,” Stock said. “I am inclined to think the shards are something noncrystalline like solidified pitch,” meaning the shards came from a thick organic material like tar and not from something fragile like glass, which has a crystal structure.

Stock also found fine wires were embedded in the mummy’s teeth, but their composition remains unknown. As for the other objects, Stock said he “can’t say much yet about the inclusions within the wrappings”

All this experimentation is helping narrow down the materials used by these cultures. For example, other mummy portraits contain red pigment from lead found in Spain, painted on a type of wood that grows in central Europe–physical proof that trade was flourishing across the vast Roman empire. The students have been analyzing the mummy’s portrait in this context while also running various tests on the mummy itself.

“Our main motivation is to use the physical sciences to be able to unpack the technology of art,” said Marc Walton, a materials scientist at Northwestern University and a leader of the project. “We’re trying to get into the mind of the artist to understand why they’re making certain choices based upon the economics of the materials, their physical structure, and then use that information to be able to rewrite history.”

Instead of a golden, idealized, three-dimensional face akin to King Tut’s sarcophagus, the Hibbard mummy has a more photorealistic representation of the girl’s face painted onto a wood panel.

These wood panel paintings, called mummy portraits, represent the largest surviving collection of paintings from antiquity. Preserved by the dry Egyptian climate, thousands of these mummy portraits have been found, but only a small fraction remain intact with their mummy.



Hibbard mummy at the Advanced Photon Source. Photo by Northwestern University


The added benefit of these cutting-edge tools is their non-invasive nature–a mummy can be analyzed without unwrapping it. Many mummies were lost to the fad of unwrapping parties in Victorian England, when Egyptomania was sweeping the nation. Little attention was paid to the religious and cultural implications of disturbing what are, at the end of the day, human remains.

“It’s a person who has been prepared for burial in a very specific and very careful way to ensure a successful afterlife,” Dill said. “Learning that through this project and this class has been very humbling and touching.”

By using these noninvasive scientific instruments, art historians can make sure they are respecting mummified remains while sharing that humbling joy of discovery for generations to come.

The Author

James Riordan

James Riordan

Rare is it that any author will have one of his books described as the definitive work on a particular subject, but such a distinction has been bestowed by critics on no less than four books written by James Riordan. The New York Times Bestseller Break on Through, Riordan’s biography of Doors lead singer Jim Morrison, has not only been called “the most objective, thorough and professional Morrison biography” by the Times Book Review but also named as one of the Ten All Time Best Rock Biographies by Amazon.com. Riordan’s The Platinum Rainbow (written with Bob Monaco) was called “One of the best how-to books ever written” by the Los Angeles Daily News and “The ultimate career book on the music industry” by Recording, Engineer & Producer. Critics described Riordan’s The Bishop of Rwanda as “one of the most important books you’ll ever read.” and The Coming of the Walrus, Riordan’s novel about the 60s as “the definitive book on the era” and “a hilarious tale of a harrowing search for the greatest truth of all”. With the release of A Well Thought Out Scream and Madman in the Gate, Riordan pushed the boundaries again with poetry/song lyric books that contain hundreds of stunning, beautiful and poignant images from artists and photographers from all over the world. In the summer of 2013 a new edition of The Coming of the Walrus was released to rave reviews followed by The Kill Switch. The author of thirty-three books, James Riordan’s career began in the music industry where as a songwriter, manager, producer and concert promoter he worked with several well known artists. In 1976 he began writing a newspaper column, Rock-Pop, which he later syndicated. Riordan soon became one of America’s premier rock journalists with articles reaching millions of readers including those of Rolling Stone, Crawdaddy, Circus, Musician, and newspapers like The Chicago Daily News and The Kansas City Star. His reputation for relating on a one-to-one level soon led to interviews with George Harri-son, Bob Dylan, Fleetwood Mac, Frank Zappa, The Doobie Brothers, Kenny Rogers, Barbra Mandrell, Crosby, Stills & Nash and countless others. His first book, The Platinum Rainbow (written with Bob Monaco in 1980) became the largest selling book ever written about the music business. The guide to “succeeding in the music business without selling your soul” was praised by Variety ,The Chicago Tribune, The Los Angeles Times, The Las Vegas Sun, The Minneapolis Tribune, Billboard, Record World and many more. The Platinum Rainbow became an industry-wide phenomenon and interviews with James Riordan were aired on over 1200 radio stations and numerous television talk shows. Next Riordan collaborated with Pulitzer Prize winner Jason Miller on a mini-series for network television (The Irish) and a movie of the week for CBS (Bless Me Father). In June 1991, William Morrow & Co. published Break On Through to outstanding sales and reviews. Riordan worked as a consultant on Oliver Stone’s film of Morrison’s life, The Doors, which led to his writing Stone’s biography. Published by Hyperion /Disney in December 1995, Entertainment Weekly called STONE “an unflinching biography... enough spectacle to fill a month of daytime-TV talk shows.” The New York Post said reading the book was like “the sensory overload of watching all of Oliver Stone’s movies back to back.” Riordan was interviewed by Inside Edition, People Magazine, The Tom Snyder Show, and many others. From 1997-2000, Riordan created and co-starred in a local television program, Kankakee Valley Prime Time, which won six Crystal Communicators, three Tellys, and earned Riordan a Chicago/ Midwest Emmy Nomination for Writing the program. In the summer of 1999, James Riordan wrote, directed and starred in Maddance, an hour long dramatic project which won Crystal Communicators for Drama, Writing, Acting and Directing. On April 9, 2000, James’ 16 year old son, Jeremiah, was killed as a passenger in an accident that involved three drunk drivers. Shortly after this, James founded Make it Stick which works to warn teens of the dangers of substance abuse and publishes a magazine distributed to high school students. In 2001, he founded Jeremiah’s – A Place to be Yourself to give teens a place to hang out away from the dangers of drugs and alcohol. Force to close by its incredible growth rate, Jeremiah’s was recognized as one of the fastest growing and most successful teen centers in the United States. In 2004, Toastmasters International named Riordan Communicator of the Year for Central Illinois, the YMCA gave him their Service to Youth Award and the United Way named him the Outstanding Volunteer of Kankakee County. Returning to writing, Riordan went to Africa to write The Bishop of Rwanda, (with an intro by Purpose Driven Life author Rick Warren). In November of 2006, Harper Collins released a new edition of Break On Through followed by The Coming of the Walrus (Image Workshop) in December and The Bishop of Rwanda (Thomas Nelson, Inc.) to rave reviews (“Powerful …plumbs the depths of God’s forgiveness and finds no bottom – Publisher’s Weekly). In 2011, he won the Pledge For Life Harold Award for his work with area youth. In the summer of 2012, Lee and Shane Stanley (Gridiron Gang) optioned Maddance as a feature film followed by Apothecary Films optioning The Kill Switch in 2013 and Omni Films optioning Final Service to film in May. Riordan joined the staff of the Mancow Syndicated Television and Radio show in January of 2014 and is now seen and heard across America on a weekly basis. His biography is included in Who’s Who in Entertainment , Who’s Who in Poetry and Contemporary Authors of America. James Riordan – Works Books The Kill Switch, novel with Andrew Dahlmaine, Stonegate Ink, 2013 The Coming of the Walrus, Trade Paperback Editn, Image Workshop 2012 Springboard To Heaven ( Jojo Sayson Adventure), Image Workshop, 2012 The Elijah Collection, novel collection with Bill Myers, Zondervan, 2011 The Well Thought Out Scream (Poetry/Art), Image Workshop Press, 2009 Madman in the Gate (Poetry/Art), Image Workshop Press, 2009 The Deadly Loyalty Collection, Forbidden Doors, Zondervan, 2009 The Ancient Forces Collection, Forbidden Doors, Zondervan, 2009 The Enemy Strikes with Bill Myers (Elijah Project series. Zondervan, 2009 Deception with Bill Myers (Book 2 Elijah Project series. Zondervan, 2009 The Bishop of Rwanda (Finding Forgiveness) Thomas Nelson, March 2007 Paperback Edition May, 2012 The Coming of the Walrus (What Really Happened in the '60s) IW, 2006 Break on Through (The Life & Death of Jim Morrison), Morrow, 1991. (New York Times Bestseller, Published in 5 languages, Hardcover, 5 Paperback Editions, Harper Trade Paperback November, 2006) Stone (The Controversies, Excesses & Exploits of a Radical Filmmaker), Disney/Hyperion,1995. (Published in 3 languages, Hardcover, Paperback Edition). Making It in the New Music Business, Writers Digest Books, 1987, (Second Edition, Revised and Updated 1991, Two Hardcover Editions) The Platinum Rainbow (How to Succeed in the Music Business Without Selling Your Soul) 250,000 copies with Bob Monaco, Swordsman Press, 1980, Twenty-Three Editions, Revised 1988) 25 Year Anniversary Edition, 2005 Capture the Wind (Microphones) w.Tom Lubin, Literary Mouse Press,1989 Private Biography of Russ Kalvin, founder of Kalvin Corp., 1990 Private Biography of Steve Stefano, founder of Joico Hair Products, 1993. Mystery of the Invisible Knight (Book 2 in the BloodHounds Series) with Bill Myers, Bethany House,1997. Matters of the Heart (The Life & Times of Edgar Cullman), Culbro, 1997. The Curse (Book 7 Forbidden Doors) with Bill Myers, Tyndale, 1997. The Undead (Book 8 Forbidden Doors) with Bill Myers, Tyndale, 1996. The Scream (Book 9 Forbidden Doors) with Bill Myers, Tyndale, 1998 The Ancients (Book 10 Forbidden Doors) with Bill Myers, Tyndale, 1999. The Cards (Book 11 Forbidden Doors Series) with Bill Myers, Tyndale,2000 Films Final Service, co-written with Gary Moore and based on his book, Omni Productions, to be filmed in May, 2014. Maddance, Writer/Director/Lead Actor, Search Engine Films, Simmcomm, 1999. (Winner of 4 Crystal Communicators including Best Drama, Screenplay, Director, Male Actor – Austin, TX.1999) Performance (The Life of Ingrid Bergman), Screenplay, Lancit Productions 1998. Returned to Author when film division closed)Rewritten2009 Shadowdancers, Story & Screenplay, Story with Bill Myers, 1997 Dr. Babylon, Story 1996. Air Guitar, Story & Screenplay, 1994 The Platinum Rainbow, Story & Screenplay, 1993 Television/Video Kankakee Valley Prime Time, Writer, Director, Producer, 1997-2000. (Nominated for Midwest/Chicago Emmy for Writing, 1998, 3 Telly Awards, 4 Crystal Communicators 1998-2000). Angels Among Us (The Amtrak City of New Orleans Train Disaster, Co- Producer, (Telly Award, 2000). River Valley Sports Authority, Producer, 1999-2003. I Hate The World (Hypnoises Music Video), Writer/Director/Producer, Crystal Communicator for Best Music Video Concept, 1998). The United Way (Video) Crystal Communicator for Best Video for a Charitable Organization, 1998.

If it isn't money and it isn't fame and it isn't sex... then what... God?

— James Riordan, 2000

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