New Scanning Technique Can Read The Papyrus Within Mummy Cases

Mummy cases and masks are made of scraps of papyrus glued together. Researchers can now read what was written on the material, thanks to a new technique. Orhan Cam/Shutterstock

Before getting locked in sarcophagi, Egyptian mummies were placed in decorated cases made of papyrus that had previously been written on. And thanks to a new scanning technique, it is now possible to read these papyri without having to break the cases apart.

The novel approach, developed at University College London, was put to work on a mummy case at the museum at Chiddingstone Castle in Kent, England. On the footplate they discovered the word "Irethorru", which had never before been visible to the naked eye. Irethorru was a very common name at the time, and translates to "the eye of Horus is against my enemies".

There aren’t just random names in the material of the cases. The scraps of papyrus were used for shopping lists and tax returns, so within the work of art of funerary masks and cases could exist a vast catalog of writing, providing the best look yet at the most mundane facts of life from Ancient Egypt.

"Because the waste papyrus was used to make prestige objects, they have been preserved for 2,000 years," project leader Prof Adam Gibson told BBC News.

"And so these masks constitute one of the best libraries we have of waste papyrus that would otherwise have been thrown away so it includes information about these individual people about their everyday lives."

The scanner uses light at different wavelengths to penetrate through different layers of the material. The photons interact with the ink making it glow in a certain way, which can be picked up by the machine. This has allowed the team to see the writing even through the plaster and paste. This technique is completely harmless to the relics.

"I'm really horrified when we see these precious objects being destroyed to get to the text. It's a crime," team member Dr Kathryn Piquette explained. "They are finite resources and we now have a technology to both preserve those beautiful objects and also look inside them to understand the way Egyptians lived through their documentary evidence – and the things they wrote down and the things that were important to them." 

[H/T: BBC News]


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