Predynastic cold case A 5,500 year old murder mystery

  • Ground-breaking new technology has allowed a virtual autopsy to be undertaken on one of the British Museum’s most well-known mummies and has revealed he was probably  murdered
  • The Interactive Institute and Visualization Center C from Sweden have provided a virtual autopsy table so visitors to the Museum in November and December will have an opportunity to use the new non-invasive technology  and discover new ways of looking at life and death in Early Egypt
  • Follow the debate on Twitter #murder3500BC

One of the key attractions in the Early Egypt gallery (Gallery 64) at the British Museum is the body of a man who was buried in about 3500 BC at the site of Gebelein in Upper Egypt. Known as Gebelein Man, he was wrapped in linen and matting, and was placed in a crouched position in a shallow grave. Direct contact with the hot dry sand naturally dried and mummified his remains. In ancient times chance discoveries of such well-preserved bodies may have promoted the belief that physical preservation was necessary for the afterlife, leading the later Egyptians to develop the practice of artificial mummification.

Discovered in 1896, this mummy is one of the best preserved individuals known from Ancient Egypt, but about whom we actually knew very little. Although he has been in the British Museum’s collections for over 100 years (acquired in 1900), it was not until 2012 that he was CT scanned for the first time at the Bupa Cromwell Hospital. Detailed images were created from the CT scans’ high resolution X-rays, allowing us to look inside his body, and examine his muscle, bones, teeth and internal organs in ways never before possible revealing long hidden secrets.

A virtual autopsy table, a new state-of-the-art interactive tool based on medical visualisation, is being trialled in Gallery 64 for a limited time (16 November to 16 December) and will let visitors explore this natural mummy for themselves and learn how we have only now been able to discover his age and determine the surprising way that he died. Using the interactive touchscreen and the gesture based interface developed by the Interactive Institute and Visualization Center C in Sweden, it is possible to strip away the skin to expose his skeleton, and make virtual slices to view his internal organs and his brain, still present in the skull, organs that were often removed when the ancient Egyptians began to artificially mummify bodies. Information points at relevant locations will guide the visitor to explore the more significant discoveries.

A virtual rotation of the body shows the shape of his pelvis (hip bones), which confirms he was a male and zooming in on his leg and arm bones one can see the fusion lines that indicate he had only recently finished growing and was probably 18-21 years old when he died. Consistent with his age, his teeth, fully visible for the first time, show light wear and no dental problems.

In addition, these new scans are allowing us to visualize something more unexpected. A cut in his skin over his left shoulder blade doesn’t look like much from the outside, but the 3D visualisation of the CT scan shows that this was probably caused by a sharp pointed weapon 1.5-2cm wide that penetrated the underlying shoulder blade (scapula). Professor, MD. PhD Anders Persson of the Center for Medical Image Science and Visualization (CMIV), a Forensic Radiology expert, who also uses the virtual autopsy system for criminal and accident cases in Sweden, confirmed the British Museum’s assessment that the force of the blow was such that it also shattered the rib immediately below the shoulder blade, embedding bone fragments into his muscle tissue, and injuring the left lung and surrounding blood vessels. The absence of any signs of healing and the severity of the injuries suggest that this can be considered the cause of death.

Weapons as symbols of power and status are fairly common in the graves as this period, but evidence of violence are extremely rare. The lack of other defensive wounds suggests the injury was not a result of warfare, and that perhaps he didn’t even see it coming and could have been murdered. He has been on display for many decades, but it is only now, through the use of modern science and state-of-the-art technology that we are beginning to understand how Gebelein man lived and died.

Neal Spencer, Keeper of Ancient Egypt of Sudan said ‘‘The latest technologies allow us to learn more about life and death in ancient Egypt, but most importantly our visitors can take part in that exploration and discovery process’ .

Daniel Antoine, Curator of physical anthropology said ‘Not only have we been able to discover that Gebelein Man was young when he died but, unexpectedly, the 3D visualisation of the CT scan has confirmed that he was stabbed in the back. The analysis of ancient human remains rarely reveals the cause of death but the cut on his back, as well as the damage to the underlying shoulder blade and rib, are characteristic of a single penetrating wound. The virtual autopsy table has allowed us explore the CT scan data interactively and clearly visualise his skeleton and internal organs, something that is not always possible with other methods. The autopsy table is also letting visitors discover for themselves how we have been able to gain this information and improve our understanding of life in Predynastic Egypt’.

David Hughes of the Interactive Institute said ‘This powerful visualisation system has enabled not just remarkable new revelations about one of the British Museum’s most iconic mummies, but also brings the thrill of discovery straight to the gallery for the public. Using exactly the same technology that the scientists use, visitors to the museum can now explore for themselves and, who knows, perhaps even make their own new discovery with the exhibit.’

Thomas Rydell, Studio director at the Interactive Institute and principal lead of the virtual autopsy table project, said ‘It’s exciting to see how the technology we developed for medical use can be used for science discovery and communication. We believe this will set a new standard for how museums will display their collections and findings, by enabling the visitor to interactively explore the "real" underlying scientific data’

For further information and images please contact Claire Coveney on 020 7323 8394 or /

Download images:

Notes to Editors:

  • The virtual autopsy table will be available to experience in gallery 64 from 16thNovember to the 16thDecember 2012. Admission to the British Museum is free
  • The Department of Ancient Egypt and Sudan at the British Museum houses the largest collection of Egyptian objects outside Egypt, which illustrate every aspect of the cultures of the Nile Valley, from the Neolithic period (about 10,000 BC) until the twelfth century AD. The Museum also conducts research excavations at 9 ancient sites in Egypt and Sudan

The Museum’s policy on Human remains can be found online:

Contacts in Sweden
Thomas Rydell, Studio Director at Interactive Institute i Norrköping
+46 (0)70 773 17 09

Magdalena Allgren, Marketing & Communications manager at Visualiseringscenter C
+46(11) 15 63 20

Sara Backlund, Director of Communications at Interactive Institute
+46 (730) 66 20 36

Interactive Institute
The Interactive Institute is a Swedish experimental IT & design research institute that conducts world-class applied research and innovation. Interactive Institute develops new research areas, concepts, products and services, and provide strategic advice to corporations and public organizations. Over the course of a decade, Interactive Institute has established itself at the forefront of research and development in interaction design, data visualization, user behaviour and entertainment, positioning Sweden as a leading force in the lifestyle technology research sector. Interactive Institute is owned by Swedish ICT.

Visualization Center C
Visualization Center C is a quad helix research centre in Norrköping, Sweden and constitutes a focal point for visualisation research, education and development in northern Europe. The centre hosts world leading research and development groups on volumetric rendering, illumination and interaction techniques for scientific data - the technologies underpinning the visualisation table. The centre hosts a large-scale arena for public visits including an immersive dome theatre and closely collaborates with key industrial partners and constitutes a hub for knowledge dissemination and commercial collaborations. The C consortium is a collaboration between the Municipality of Norrköping, Linköping University, Norrköping Science Park and the Interactive Institute. www.visualiseringscenter

About Us

Vizualisation Center C is a public arena and a meeting place about visualization filled with sensory experiences. It contains exhibitions, a dome theatre, a virtual reality arena, conference rooms, cinemas, media laboratories, research facilities, a shop and a restaurant. Visualization Center C’s goal is to demonstrate and distribute knowledge about visualization research being conducted at Linköping University and engage, inform and entertain the visitors. The center is housed in Norrköping's unique and historical industrial area and is the result of a close collaboration between the Municipality of Norrköping, Linköping University, Norrköping Science Park and The Interactive Institute. More about the center can be found at



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