Iron Coffin Mummy on PBS

Science

The photo above shows some of the team at the Smithsonian Institute assembled in 2009 to analyze the bodies of Mary and William. In lab coats from left to right are subject experts Dr. Kari Bruwelheide; Dr. Arthur Aufderheide, MD; Elizabeth Eubanks; Carol L. Kregloh; and Dr. Larry Cartmell, MD. Photo by Chip Clark

Science

Understanding the lives and deaths of the iron coffin mummies required the generous efforts of many subject experts from a variety of disciplines, including digital scanning and radiography, physical anthropology, epidemiology, textile analysis, genealogy, and isotope analysis. Over time, this site will highlight aspects of the scientific analysis, including interviews with the scientists.

Interview with Jerry Conlogue, 2020

Professor Emeritus Jerry Conlogue with his scanner

Jerry Conlogue was Professor Emeritus of Diagnostic Imaging and co-director of the Bioanthropology Research Institute at Quinnipiac University. He has been imaging and investigating mummies for over 30 years and has worked with hundreds of sets of mummified and skeletal remains, both human and animal, from all over the world. Jerry became involved with the Queens mummy project in 2012, contributing immeasurably to understanding the woman’s life, health, death, and even identification, as well as providing the first scans of the smallpox virus in a human body. He has generously shared some of his thoughts on this project and other aspects of his career. 

What were your first thoughts when seeing the body for the first time?

Since this was the first body I had seen that had been in an iron coffin, I was amazed at the level of preservation.

How does the preservation compare to other mummies you’ve worked on?

By far it was the most well-preserved body I have had access to.

Besides mummies, what other assignments or projects have you worked on?

My research over the past 50 years has been modifying medical imaging procedures for non-medical applications. The diverse range of applications has extended from developed radiographic aging procedures for seals and whales to artistic presentations of x-rays of flowers and insects.

What are a few of your favorite cases?

This may sound a bit strange, but it is usually the case I’m working on at the moment. After all these years I still get excited beginning a new study or project. However, there have been occasions, like the Iron Coffin Lady study, when it was more than just the remains of the individual, but also the relationship with the community involved. Because I have a clinical background, to me the community represents the relatives of the individual being studied. Therefore, it has been important for me to develop a relationship with that community to insure a successful outcome. I have always attempted to involve them with a complete description of what I’m doing and to discuss all the findings. Along those lines, I’ve had similar relationships with mummified remains in Thailand and the Philippines.

For those not familiar with the different scanning technologies, can you explain the differences and benefits of the three main systems?

Plane radiographs, x-rays, are what most people are familiar with. These images can be equated to a photograph or snapshot. They are two-dimensional images of three-dimensional objects. What that means is if I’m taking an x-ray of a person’s chest from the “front”, the sternum or breastbone is superimposed over the heart and spine. Therefore, at least two x-rays are required to get a more three-dimensional impression of the structures within an object. In the case of the chest x-ray, a second radiograph must be taken from the side. With this image, the sternum, heart and spine are seen separately, but the right and left sides of the body are superimposed. Although this can be viewed as a disadvantage, the equipment can be portable and transported to the remains. 

In the 1970s, another imaging modality or method to “look” inside an object was introduced. Computed tomography – CT or frequently referred to as “Cat Scan” – eliminated the problem of superimposition and presented an image of the body in “slices”. Imaging a loaf of raisin bread. If you look at the loaf from the outside, it is not possible to see the location of the raisins. However, if the loaf is sliced, the location of the raisins is clearly demonstrated. Innovations with CT equipment and software have made it possible to not only slice the “loaf” in any direction but also provide 3D-images of the intact “loaf”.

Scanned image of Martha Peterson’s remains

 

The third imaging modality, developed in the 1980s, is magnetic resonance imaging, or MRI. Instead of passing x-rays through the body and producing an image, this modality determines that quantity of hydrogen, most commonly water, in the structures under examination. Generally, mummified remains are completely dehydrated and no water remains. However, this modality also detects the hydrogen in fats that may still be present. In the case of the Iron Coffin Lady, the tissues were still “flexible,” and some signal was received from the remains – and it was possible to correlate to the CT findings.  

How has this project affected your work going forward?

One finding that had been determined before the Iron Coffin Lady study is that the factors used to acquire the images must be modified from those employed with live patients. In the clinical setting, particularly with CT, the radiation dose to the patient must be minimized. In doing that, however, image resolution is sacrificed. With mummified remains, maximum resolution is necessary with a total disregard for radiation dose. Unfortunately, with the Iron Coffin Lady CT study, clinical factors were used, and the resolution was lacking. Therefore, small pox lesions may have been present on organs such as the liver, but due to lower resolution, they were not detected. Going forward, if we are using equipment at a clinical facility, I will not begin the study until I’m assured the appropriate technical factors have been set.

Do you see any new technological breakthroughs in your field on the horizon?

I’ve been in the medical imaging profession for more than 50 years. I could never have imagined the advances in the 1970s – CT – or 1980s – MRI. Therefore, I anticipate more astounding advances in the future.

What projects are you currently working on?

Since I retired in 2015, I’ve been focusing on writing up what we have done over the past 20 years. Ron Beckett and I have two books coming out in the next couple of months. In addition, we are currently working on a book about sideshow mummies and exhibited human remains.

Where can one go to learn more about digital imaging?

If you can wait for the release of our books, they will be a great resource.

More Information on paleoimaging

To learn more about paleoimaging, how it enhanced the research into the identification of Martha Peterson, and what it revealed about her case of smallpox, as well as other fascinating case studies, check out these new publications.

In the News

Death, Burial and Egypt

image from https://etc.usf.edu/clipart/62600/62694/62694_church.htm Fisk developed his coffins at a unique period in early modern history when many traditions were being challenged, fading or replaced. By the early 1800s, American attitudes about death and burial had begun to move away from the puritanical views of the colonial period and the traditional concepts of the body, soul, […]

Read More

New York Times: This Empty Lot Is Worth Millions. It’s Also an African-American Burial Ground.

Article by Kaya Laterman The flier advertising a near-one-acre plot of land for sale in Elmhurst, Queens, looks like a typical real estate listing. The oddly-shaped parcel that abuts the Long Island Rail Road tracks is available for $13.8 million. According to the flier, the lot is a great opportunity to capitalize on the growing demand for residential space […]

Read More

Mysteries at the Museum Episode IRON MAIDEN Featuring Martha Peterson

On the Travel Channel: Don Wildman investigates a gangster’s sinister plot to cheat death, two enemy pilots brought together by honor, and a curious corpse found in a metal coffin. Learn more: https://www.travelchannel.com/shows/mysteries-at-the-museum/episodes/gangster-frankenstein-unlikely-allies-and-iron-maiden

Read More