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Scanning for answers to mummy's mysteries

| Tuesday, June 21, 2005

Even to those who know her best, Pesed is a woman cloaked in mystery.

She traveled halfway around the world to make her home at Westminster College in New Wilmington, Lawrence County, and rumor has it she sometimes made late-night jaunts across campus, roaming dormitory halls and snuggling up with unsuspecting co-eds.

Though people close to her know she came from Egypt's Akhmim region, south of Cairo, they've learned little about her life there. They're also curious about the meaning behind the small metal charm she wears tucked under her arm.

Mostly, they want to know what she looked like.

Scientists hope to find out more about the 2,300-year-old mummy after CT scans are performed on her tonight at College Fields MRI in Neshannock, Lawrence County. A forensic sculptor will use the scans to construct a three-dimensional model of Pesed's skull.

Samuel Farmerie, Westminster's curator of cultural artifacts, admits the effort might dampen some of the mystique surrounding Pesed, who has resided at the tiny liberal arts college for more than a century. But he can't help wanting to know more.

"Curiosity killed the cat," he said. "But since I'm not a cat, I don't have to worry about it killing me."

The Rev. John Griffin, an Egyptian missionary and Westminster graduate, bought Pesed for $8 and donated her to the college in 1885. Today, she is worth $200,000 to $250,000, said Jonathan Elias, of the Reading, Berks County-based Akhmim Mummy Studies Consortium, which is paying for the CT scans.

About 1,000 mummies have been unearthed in the Akhmim region of Egypt, but just 300 reside in the United States, Elias said.

Pesed once was thought to be the young, single daughter of an Egyptian priest, but CT scans and X-rays in August 2001 unmasked her as a 55- to 65-year-old woman who was suffering from osteoporosis at the time of her death. She was mummified between 300 and 220 B.C.

The latest round of scans will be more sophisticated and similar to those recently done on King Tutankhamun, Farmerie said. Those images disproved the long-held notion that the boy king was murdered, indicating that he instead might have died at 19 from an infection in a badly broken leg.

Farmerie hopes hair samples gathered when Pesed's body is removed from her coffin will unearth more about her diet, lifestyle or other diseases she may have had.

Of particular interest is an amulet, or small metal charm, lodged under her arm. The scans will allow scientists to view the charm without disturbing Pesed's wrappings, Farmerie said.

Egyptians, who believed the body transcended into the afterlife, placed charms on the body to cure wearers' maladies, he said.

The placement of the charm under Pesed's arm is unusual, Elias said. It might indicate that she suffered a chronic pain in that area, he said.

In addition to osteoporosis, the 2001 scans of Pesed revealed abscesses along her jaw, possibly pointing to an infection that could have led to malnutrition or even death, Farmerie said.

Though Pesed's existence is unknown to many students at Westminster, she long has been a subject of fascination there.

One tale had it that pranksters severed her head from her body. That one has been disproved, Farmerie said, but rumors of her being carted around campus and dropped off in students' beds are harder to dispel, he said.

Snatching Pesed wouldn't have been hard, he said, so long as students took the whole body. Until 20 to 30 years ago, Pesed was left unguarded, sometimes tucked away in storage closets, anywhere there was 12 square feet of space, Farmerie said.

Evidence that kids got to the mummy has been left behind: The underside of the lid to Pesed's wooden coffin is decorated with the etchings of students' names and dates from the late 1800s.

"That gives you an indication of how accessible it was," Farmerie said.

These days, Pesed dwells securely in her coffin in a glass display case at the Mack Science Library on campus.

"It's under lock and key," Farmerie said.

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