Meeting mummy at the museum

Thanks to SGI’s visualisation technology, British Museum visitors can see for the first time what lies beneath the wrappings of a 3,000-year-old mummy, while it remains completely intact.

One of the challenges when studying Egyptian civilization is that Egyptian mummies contain a wealth of information about the past, but to un-wrap them is an irreversible and potentially destructive process. This poses a huge problem for Egyptologists, who want to gain access to the data contained in mummies while at the same time preserving them untouched for future investigators.

Visualisation technology has been used by SGI customers in a wide range of industries, such as in healthcare – for medical diagnosis – and in oil and gas – for the analysis of seismic data. The technology was also used in an innovative project called the ‘Visible Human’, where a complete human being was virtually ‘visualised’ inside and out.

Having achieved that goal, SGI and the British Museum decided to see if the same techniques could be applied to an Egyptian mummy.

The British Museum chose the 3,000-year-old priest Nesperennub as the mummy to investigate. Nesperennub was CT-scanned at the National Hospital for Neurology and Neurosurgery in London and underwent 3D laser scanning in Scotland.

These scanning sessions produced more than 1,500 images which were reassembled into a single 3D dataset that could be interactively viewed and explored, using a specially developed, real-time visualisation application created by SGI Professional Services. A team of SGI and British Museum experts were then able to embark on a process of discovery by subtly adjusting many parameters, such as density and opacity to tease out fine detail buried deep in the body.

They have been able to identify features that could never have been accessed if the mummy was unwrapped such as a mysterious cavity inside the skull which experts believe could have been the result of a disease.

Now, an SGI Reality Centre immersive theatre has been installed at the British Museum as the centerpiece of a dedicated exhibition so that members of the public can see the results of the work.

The ‘Mummy: Inside Story’ exhibition seats 112 people and has been designed and installed by SGI Professional Services and Fakespace Systems. Powering the Reality Centre is an SGI Onyx 350 system with three InfiniteReality4 graphics subsystems, 12 MIPS R14000 CPUs, 6 GBytes of RAM and 1.5TBytes of disk space.

The British Museum will use the system in three modes. Playback: where the public will experience a 22 minute narrated show. Playback and Real time: where the show will be paused for ‘interactive interludes’ where free roaming is possible to explore areas of interest. And finally Real Time – a full interactive mode where the entire model of the mummy is loaded for research, special events and presentation by a museum expert.

The exhibition takes visitors on a journey inside the mummy, going under the lid of the coffin, virtually peeling away the bandages and travelling into the body itself, all in 3D stereo.

The show is narrated by Sir Ian McKellen and is shown on a 12-foot tall by 42-foot wide curved screen. Following the show, which includes a facial reconstruction of Nesperennub and a historical reconstruction of how he would have lived, the final area of the exhibition features the mummy displayed in its coffin alongside examples of the artifacts featured in the show.