Mike Toth is trying to make mummies “talk.”
In ancient Egypt, middle-class dead were mummified with a mask made of papyrus scraps – “papyrus mâché,” he calls it – and finished off with layers of primer and paint.
Toth hopes to look under those layers and see if these reused papyrus scraps have text on them.
“The laws of physics are against us,” he said. “We have to penetrate these layers – paint, gesso, papyrus – and we need energy to do that.”
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Researchers can use light or X-rays to reveal the inner layers, but this can be risky. The same techniques that could render secret messages visible could also destroy the artifact.
“There’s a fine line between energy and deterioration,” Toth said.
Some scholars, he said, dissolve the masks in Palmolive detergent to get to the papyrus layers beneath the paint.
“What we’re trying to do here is show you don’t have to destroy them,” Toth explained. For him, information isn’t always worth the means used to get it. “There are ways of getting its age by incinerating it, but we don’t want to do that.”
Toth’s sister had an unconventional solution.
Dr. Cynthia Toth works as an ophthamologist at Duke Hospital. She uses the Eye Center’s Optical Coherence Tomography scanner to detect visual and neurological problems in premature babies. “They can tell us early on what’s going on in the brain,” she said.
The OCT machine shows the layers of the retina, and if some are too thin or swollen, that can be a sign of developmental delays.
According to Dr. Toth, OCT has become a crucial tool for clinical work. “For us, it’s become a new way of looking,” she said.
The brother-sister duo wondered if the same technology could reveal hidden layers in the mummy masks.
But they needed a subject. These artifacts are difficult to transport over long distances, so samples would have to be available nearby.
Luckily, the university’s papyrus archive is just a short walk from the hospital. “Duke has a small but exquisite collection,” Toth said. “If the Duke collection wasn’t here we wouldn’t be here.”
On Tuesday, Toth examined three fragments using OCT imaging. In the morning, they found what appeared to be Greek text on the surface of one piece, undetectable to the human eye.
Toth explained that Greek was the language of the government at the time. “We’re not looking at hieroglyphics,” he clarified.
Later that afternoon, they began working on the largest piece, about 10 inches high and 4 inches wide. Toth called it simply “the gods,” as it features four standing gods on its surface, painted in red and black.
As they honed in on one god’s ear, Dr. Toth dropped in to check in on the project’s progress.
“This is a dehydrated patient,” she joked.
“This is your oldest, too,” her brother returned – 2,250 years old, he estimated.
Watching the white lines jump on the monitor, Toth pointed at one grainy spot. “There’s a cavity here, most likely some ink,” he said. “That’s what we’re looking for.”
Sina Farsiu, director of Duke’s Vision and Image Processing Laboratory, explained how he would process the data afterward, removing the surface layer from the image to better examine the ones beneath.
“Like a layer of a cake,” he compared, “we cut it out, throw it away, and then in much higher contrast look at the hidden information below.”
Each layer is two microns thick, he said. A human hair is about 40.
“Overlaying all of this is the destruction of artifacts and sale of them by ISIS,” he said. According to Toth, scholars are concerned these mass purchases are leading to a rise in the poor handling and dismantling of the mummy cartonnage. He says this was the impetus for the current study supported by the Arcadia Fund.
The project is a collaboration between institutions including the University College of London, Stanford University, University of California at Berkley and the University of Pennsylvania.
After working at the Eye Center on Tuesday, the team moved over to the Duke Library on Wednesday to use its spectral imaging system. The data from the both days will be synthesized over the coming months and made publicly available, whatever the results are.
“We need to be careful about reporting success and failure,” he explained. “That’s part of science.” Even failure could be helpful if others can learn from it.
His Washington, D.C.-based company, R.B. Toth Associates, specializes in these interdisciplinary research efforts. It supports institutions in using technology to preserve and study cultural heritage artifacts and in making the data freely available for global study.
Toth’s work has taken him around the world, working on artifacts from a Gettysburg Address draft to “The Gospel of Jesus’ Wife” papyrus.
“Sometimes I have to pinch myself,” he said.