Researchers Reveal Mummy’s Surprising Contents Without Unwrapping It

Technique described in a new study combines X-ray and CT scans to examine remains without damaging them

Researchers Look at 1,900-Year-Old Mummy
A new, noninvasive technique allows researchers to study mummies without damaging them. Courtesy of Mark Lopez / Argonne National Laboratory

Researchers using a newly developed, noninvasive imaging technique have unveiled a 1,900-year-old Egyptian mummy’s contents without unraveling its linen wrappings.

As detailed in the Journal of the Royal Society Interface, the team drew on computed tomography (CT) scanning, in which beams of X-rays smaller than the diameter of a human hair are pointed at an object and quickly rotated around it to produce images, and X-ray diffraction, which reveals details about the physical properties of materials, to analyze a Roman-era mummy unearthed at the Hawara archaeological site between 1910 and 1911.

Though scientists have used X-rays to study mummies noninvasively for decades, the technique described in the study is novel in its combination of two different approaches, notes Amy Woodyatt for CNN.

“We knew there were objects within the mummy, and we wanted to find out which materials were present,” says lead author Stuart Stock, a cellular and molecular biologist at Northwestern University’s Feinberg School of Medicine, in a statement.​“Short of opening the mummy, there’s no way other than X-ray diffraction to identify those materials.”

Per Live Science’s Mindy Weisberger, scans of the mummy’s teeth and femur showed that the body belonged to a 5-year-old who likely died of a disease rather than as the result of violence. Though the scientists were unable to determine the child’s sex, they speculate that she was female based on the funerary portrait of an older woman attached to her mummy.

“During the Roman era in Egypt, they started making mummies with portraits attached to the front surface,” Stock tells Live Science. “Many thousands were made, but most of the portraits have been removed from the mummies we have.”

X-rays unwrap mummy's secrets at Argonne's Advanced Photon Source

In addition to identifying the mummy’s age, the team spotted a number of unexpected items, including a layer of mud perhaps used to secure its wrappings, 36 modern pins or wires added to stabilize the fragile remains within the past century, and what appears to be a 0.3-inch scarab amulet crafted out of calcite. Associated with renewal and rebirth, these insect charms were intended to protect souls on their journey to the afterlife.

Speaking with CNN, Stock says the amulet’s presence offers insights on the child’s socioeconomic status.

“[Her family] could afford to have a scarab and mummification, which required a tremendous amount of resources,” he adds.

The team’s findings could pave the way for more precise imaging of mummies than previously possible. According to Live Science, scans taken of the so-called “Hawara Portrait Mummy No. 4” some 20 years ago were low contrast, and many details in them were unintelligible. That’s where the Advanced Photon Source (APS) at the United States Department of Energy’s Argonne National Laboratory comes in: As Ellen Gutoskey points out for Mental Floss, the APS produces X-ray beams far more intense than those used to examine broken bones.

“The difference is akin to the difference between a laser and a light bulb,” co-author Jonathan Almer, a physicist at the APS facility, says to Mental Floss.

First, the researchers used a CT scan to create a “three-dimensional roadmap” of the mummy and its contents, as Stock tells CNN. They then drew on this guide to determine where to aim the APS’ X-ray beams, targeting specific areas and completing their assessment in just 24 hours.

“Without the CT scan to refer to, this literally would have taken two weeks,” says Stock in the statement.

The scientists hope that their technique will help experts learn more about these ancient mummies without damaging them.

“Back in the day [in Victorian times], they would take them apart,” Stock tells CNN. “We don’t like to do that anymore.”

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