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Sunday, November 20, 2005 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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CT tells mummy's secret: Preservation no accident

Seattle Times staff reporter

Researchers oohed and aahed so much over the patient's internal organs one might be forgiven for thinking he was still alive.

But Sylvester, the object of all the attention Saturday at Inland Pacific Imaging in Seattle, is a mummy.

Researchers who did a CT scan on him four years ago came back for a more detailed look, this time using both CT and MRI equipment.

"Amazing!" and "Awesome!" they exclaimed over images of the mummy's brain. "That is impossible. He can't look like that," said Jerry Conlogue, co-director of the Bioanthropology Research Institute at Quinnipiac University in Hamden, Conn.

But he does look that good, thanks to some effective 19th-century embalming.

Legend has it that two cowboys found Sylvester's dried-out body as they rode across Arizona's Gila Bend Desert in 1895.

But the researchers say the brain and other internal organs are so extraordinarily well-preserved because an embalmer injected an arsenic-based fluid shortly after death.

The body subsequently dried out, or mummified.

The four researchers from Connecticut wore rubber gloves to avoid contact with the arsenic.

It was the team's second trip here to study Sylvester, whose dark-brown, leathery body has stood in a glass case since the 1950s at Ye Olde Curiosity Shop on the Seattle waterfront.

On the first trip, researchers X-rayed him in the shop to confirm that he wasn't a fake. Sylvester and Sylvia, another mummy from the novelty shop, then underwent CT scans at the University of Washington Medical Center. That testing was filmed for the 13-part "Mummy Road Show" series that aired on National Geographic cable TV.

But data from those scans were lost, so the researchers came back for a more thorough look with newer technology. Sylvia's organs had deteriorated too badly to be worth a second look, but Sylvester drew their interest.

"We've looked at probably 1,000 mummies, and he's absolutely the best preserved of any mummy we've ever examined," Conlogue said.

Equally impressed by the mummy was Andrew Jesberger, MRI manager of Inland Pacific Imaging. He pointed at the image of Sylvester's tongue, which remains intact.

That means the tongue still has moisture, he said.

Researchers, who plan to spend months examining the thousands of images taken Saturday, may not ever know for sure what caused Sylvester's death. But they've learned a few things about him.

Sylvester had a hard life. His right cheek is pocked with pellets from a shotgun blast some years before his death. And a metal fragment under his collarbone may be a piece of a bullet from another shooting.

If he was a drinker, his healthy liver doesn't show it.

"This is supposed to be a desperado from the Old West," Conlogue said. "Let's find out as much as we can without opening him up."

Keith Ervin: 206-464-2105 or kervin@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2005 The Seattle Times Company

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