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Unraveling a mummy’s mysteries at MGH

Dr. Rajiv Gupta, Mimi Leveque, Rebecca Barber, and Joe Faye loaded the mummy known as Padihershef into a CT scanner at Massachusetts General Hospital.Matthew J. Lee/Globe staff/Globe Staff

The team at Massachusetts General Hospital hoisted the patient off the gurney and gingerly guided him inside the massive cavern of a CT scanning machine.

On a computer monitor in an adjoining room, images faded in and out like high-tech black-and-white scrawls. A small crowd hovered as Rajiv Gupta, a radiologist, began painstakingly clicking on the images and assembling them into a bigger, three-dimensional one: A bone, a foot, legs, at last a whole body. “Amazing,’’ someone said.

The patient did not move. He is a 2,500-year-old mummy named Padihershef, wrapped tight in ancient Egyptian linen, most of the details of his life a mystery.


Inside an exam room this week, doctors and conservation specialists at Mass. General got their first look inside Padihershef, who has been kicking around Boston for almost two centuries and is believed to be the first Egyptian mummy to come to the United States.

Just who Padihershef was in life is a question that has dogged Gupta and others at Mass. General, where the mummy has been a hospital fixture for nearly two centuries. He has adorned the Ether Dome, been showcased in exhibits, and even been X-rayed twice before.

But this year, with the help of $5,000 from an anonymous donor, he is getting his first up-close look as a team tries to learn more about Padihershef’s diet, possible diseases, and living conditions.

“From my point of view, I can see how the wrapping was done, how he was embalmed, and his condition,’’ said Mimi Leveque, a conservator at the Peabody Essex Museum who was hired by Mass. General to help restore the mummy. “From the doctors’ point of view, they can figure out maybe what he had, maybe what he died from.”

Over the following months, Mass. General hopes to document every inch of Padihershef by taking X-rays and CT scans that will be reconstructed into detailed 3D images.


“From that we can recreate a real three-dimensional construct that you can touch and turn around,’’ said Dr. Paul Chapman, a neurosurgeon who is involved in the restoration project. “It will be life-sized.”

Dr. Rajiv Gupta checked out the first CT images of Padihershef. Matthew J. Lee/Globe staff

The goal, officials said, is to better understand Padihershef’s state of health at the time of his death, his state of preservation, and his mummification process. The hospital is also planning to remove salt deposits from his face and repair rips in his linen wrap.

What little is known of Padihershef was gleaned by experts from the heilographics on his inner and outer coffins. He was an unmarried stonecutter from Necropolis who tunneled into cliffs to make tombs for the nobles. He was the son of Her-ibes-enes and Iref-iaen-Hershef, his father. And he lived a simple life, dying sometime in his 40s.

He was buried in Thebes where he worked.

Padihershef made his debut in North America in April 1823, brought by a wealthy Dutch merchant named Jacob Van Lennep, who was counsel general to the Netherlands. He brought the mummy as a gift to the City of Boston. It was believed he also did it to impress his New England in-laws.

Padihershef the mummy.Matthew J. Lee/Globe staff

The city eventually gave Padihershef to Mass. General, which had opened just two years earlier and was in need of funds. Padihersherf was displayed for crowds eager to pay 25 cents for a glimpse.

In an MGH X-ray exam room this week, Signe Dahlquist, a radiologic technologist, typed his name on a computer: Mummy Padihersherf.


His date of birth was listed as Jan. 1, 0625.

“He’s so little,’’ marveled one of a trio of interns who came to see the mummy.

As images appeared on the screen, Gupta, who had scanned another mummy some time before, made his observations aloud.

“Already, there is a disconnect between his body and his head,’’ he said. “But what is holding up his head?’’ asked Leveque.

They found out later after the CT scans. A broomstick had been affixed to the back of the mummy’s head to his abdomen.

His chest was also caved in, and his hands reached downward and clasped below his waist. Gupta noted that his top jaw is intact, but the bottom half is pushed inward. His skull is whole and remnants of his brain, decayed through the years, remain, the doctor said.

Officials hope to learn more about Padihershef to aid in his restoration. The Mass. General project will last several months.

Meghan Irons can be reached at Follow her on Twitter @meghanirons.