How scientists ‘unpacked’ an Egyptian pharaoh’s mummy while leaving it perfectly intact

Sahar Saleem was the first person to look at the face of Pharaoh Amenhotep I for more than 3,000 years.

And thanks to modern computer scanning technology, she did so without having to physically unpack the ancient Egyptian mummy.

“This was an exciting moment for me,” the Cairo University radiologist said As it happens guest host Dave Seglins.

Saleem and Egyptologist Zahi Hawass used a computed tomography (CT) machine to “digitally extract” the mummy from Amenhotep I in 2019 before moving it to a new collection at the Cairos National Museum of Egyptian Civilization.

Their results – which were published Tuesday in the journal Frontiers in Medicine – is hailed as an example of how modern technology allows researchers to look into the past without inflicting unnecessary harm or disrespect.

‘A time capsule’

Amenhotep I was a king from the 18th dynasty who ruled Egypt from about 1525 to 1504 BC. and was the son of the founder of the new kingdom Ahmose I.

His body was painstakingly mummified on top of ancient Egyptian civilization using the best and most expensive embalming materials imported from around the world, according to Saleem.

“I would describe his body as a time capsule,” she said.

This 3D CT image of the wrapped mummy from Amenhotep I shows his funeral mask, head and bandages. Physical unpacking of mummies, though once common, is now avoided in an attempt to preserve the wrapping and mask. (Sahar Saleem and Zahi Hawass)

Scientists know that Amenhotep I was extracted once before, probably in the 11th century BC. of priests believed to repair damage caused by grave robbers.

But unlike most famous royal mummies, his body has never been physically unpacked and examined in the modern era.

This is largely due to a lengthy effort to preserve the mummy’s elaborate linen wraps and funeral mask.

“It’s all covered in garlands of still colorful flowers and a very beautiful mask that made me eager to unpack the mummy and see what’s hiding behind all these wraps,” Saleem said.

“But of course we could not physically unpack the mummy. It would destroy it. So we did it digitally using computers.”

This is not the first time a mummy has been CT-scanned, but the study’s authors say this marks the first comprehensive analysis of this type of work.

3D scans like slices of bread

The actual process of scanning the mummy with a CT machine was simple, Saleem says, and took less than an hour.

The hard work came as researchers used software to look at thousands of cross-sectional CT images – each thinner than a human hair – and then layered them to form stunningly detailed 3D images. of what lies beneath the wrapping.

“[It’s] as if you have toast and you put the pieces of toast together to get the whole loaf, “Saleem said.

Sahar Saleem is a professor of radiology at Cairo University and a member of the Egyptian Mummy Project. She said Amenhotep I resembled her father, Ahmose I, whose mother was unpacked in 1886. (Posted by Sahar Saleem)

The scans revealed a man who was about 35 years old when he died. His teeth are remarkably well preserved. His body is adorned with more than 30 amulets or other jewelry. He appears to have been in good health and his cause of death is still unknown.

Unlike most royal mummies that have been studied, Amenhotep I’s brain was never removed – indicating that mummification was probably a more diverse and varied practice than scientists once thought.

But what stood out most about Saleem was his face. She says he resembles his father, Ahmose I, whose mummy was unpacked in 1886 and is currently on display at Egypt’s Luxor Museum.

“This was also very interesting from the human side,” she said.

A more respectful way of learning

Carrie Arbuckle MacLeod, a Canadian archaeologist who specializes in ancient Egypt, says she was in “awe” when she saw the photos.

“It’s really breathtaking,” said the post-doc researcher at the University of British Columbia.

She says these technologies are changing the way scientists approach archaeological research for the better.

Early excavators unpacked mummies all the time, she said. In fact, when mummies were first dug up, she says there was a “craze” for hosting “mummy unpacking parties.”

“All these rich individuals came together in their salons and unpacked a mummy, and it was this great sight. And it really was not done at the time of knowledge or education; it was just done for the wow factor,” she said.

“Not only have we lost a lot of knowledge, but it’s incredibly disrespectful to the deceased.”

Arbuckle MacLeod hopes to see 3D scanning technology used more in the future, but says researchers should still make ethical considerations about when to use it.

“These mummies, when they were buried, did not want anyone to know what they were buried with. They wanted to keep their secrecy. So even if we do not physically unpack them, we are still somehow breaking that boundary.” she said.

“So I still think we need to be careful about which mummies we CT scan. We should have reasons to scan them, and then do it with… respect and remind people that they are individuals. These are people we look at .”


Written by Sheena Goodyear with files from Reuters. Interview produced by Abby Plener.

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