Ancient mummies can be found on every continent except Antarctica, but the best known are from Egypt, where mummification was an ornate and sacred practice for ensuring the dead could move on into the afterlife. Deceased royalty were mummified in the most elaborate and complex ways—so every mummified pharaoh is an opportunity to study a long-lost history and science.
Those opportunities, of course, are increasingly rare these days. According to Sahar Saleem, a radiologist at Cairo University who works with the Egyptian Mummy Project, every royal Egyptian mummy found in the 19th and 20th centuries has been unwrapped except one: the pharaoh Amenhotep I, who ruled Egypt from approximately 1525 to 1504 BCE. Though his body was discovered in 1881, his mummy was simply “so beautiful that it was not unwrapped in modern times,” Saleem told The Daily Beast. “Physical unwrapping of mummies has been condemned as it destroyed mummies.” Scientists have been especially reluctant to study Amenhotep since it’s unique for being totally wrapped, adorned with delicate flower garlands, and fitted with an exquisitely lifelike face mask.
In 2019, Saleem decided enough was enough—it was time to study the damn mummy, even if it couldn’t be unwrapped. How? Through CT scans. In a new study published in Frontiers in Medicine, Saleem and her colleagues used CT scanning to “digitally unwrap” Amenhotep. New software advances allowed the researchers to reconstruct the mummified contents as 3D imagery—giving us a compelling look at what one human looked like when he died over three millennia ago.
“Virtual unwrapping using CT scanning was the only method to reveal the secrets of this mummy in a detailed way,” said Saleem. “The 2D and 3D images show the mummy’s physical features, health, mummification style, injuries by ancient tomb robbers, as well as treatment offered by the priests of a later dynasty. No other imaging method can provide this data.”
For starters, we now know what Amenhotep actually looked like when he died around the age of 35: he was a little over 5-foot-6 tall, had a narrow chin and narrow nose, curly hair, and his upper teeth protruded a bit from the rest of his face.
He was laid to rest with over 30 amulets and other jewelry sitting between his linen wrappings. His entrails were removed, but his heart and brain were left behind. And while there’s no evidence he died of disease or wounds, there are plenty of postmortem mutilations that suggest his body was attacked by grave robbers after his burial.
Another big mystery was also solved. We already knew that Amenhotep’s mummy was opened up once before, 400 years after the original burial. It was assumed priests around this time had gone back into the tomb to salvage burial equipment for use on later pharaohs. Saleem explained that the CT scans indicated those priests actually tried to repair the damage inflicted by grave robbers and restore the mummy’s integrity.
CT scans have been used to study Egyptian mummies before—most notably King Tut in 2005. But this is the first time researchers have demonstrated we might be able to use this technology to avoid causing any harm or destruction to the mummy. Saleem thinks that could be especially useful for studying Peruvian mummies that are especially fragile—or for more macabre modern-day mysteries.