Famous Ancient Egyptian Mummy "Digitally Unwrapped" After 3,000 Years

Facemask of the never-before unwrapped mummy of pharaoh Amenhotep I. Image credit: S. Saleem and Z. Hawass

Scientists have “digitally unwrapped” an ancient Egyptian mummy to reveal the face of a 3,500-year-old pharaoh without disturbing his exquisitely preserved facemask (and keeping any ancient curses at bay).

Presented in the journal Frontiers in Medicine, researchers from the University of Cairo describe the process of scanning the mummy of King Amenhotep I, who ruled from 1525 to 1504 BCE and was worshipped as a god after his death, and what they could discern about him. 

The well-known mummy, decorated with garlands of flowers and featuring a lifelike mask inset with colorful stones, was rediscovered in modern times in 1881 at the archaeological site Deir el Bahari in southern Egypt. Though the mummy was briefly uncovered by restorers in the 11th century to repair the damage from would-be tomb robbers, King Amenhotep I remained wrapped up for the next 3,000 years, unlike many other mummies that were overzealously analyzed in the 19th and 20th centuries.

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The pharaoh's mummy, showing his shrunken skull and skeleton within the bandages. Image credit: S. Saleem and Z. Nuwass

Owing to his ornate linen wrapping and well-preserved facemask, archaeologists have previously been reluctant to meddle with the mummy of King Amenhotep I. However, CT imaging now allows researchers to take a non-invasive peek inside without the need to disturb the precious body. Not only has this imaging revealed fascinating insights into the pharaoh's physical appearance, but it’s also shedding light on the life and death of this once-proud ruler.

“By digitally unwrapping of the mummy and ‘peeling off’ its virtual layers – the facemask, the bandages, and the mummy itself – we could study this well-preserved pharaoh in unprecedented detail,” Dr Sahar Saleem, professor of radiology at the Faculty of Medicine at Cairo University and the radiologist of the Egyptian Mummy Project, said in a statement

“We show that Amenhotep I was approximately 35 years old when he died. He was approximately 169 cm tall, circumcized, and had good teeth," she explained. "Within his wrappings, he wore 30 amulets and a unique golden girdle with gold beads." 

“Amenhotep I seems to have physically resembled his father: he had a narrow chin, a small narrow nose, curly hair, and mildly protruding upper teeth,” Saleem added.

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The pharaoh's skull, including his teeth in good condition. Image credit: S. Saleem and Z. Hawass

It appears that mummifiers had removed the intestines from the body, although the heart and brain remained in place. The CT scans did not uncover any signs of disease or wounds, so the researchers were not able to identify a cause of death. 

King Amenhotep I was the second pharaoh of Egypt’s 18th dynasty. The first ruler of this dynasty was his father Ahmose I, who had expelled the invading Hyksos from the Nile Delta and successfully reunited Egypt. This period is thought to be somewhat of a Golden Age of ancient Egypt, defined by prosperity, peace, and some significant cultural developments.

The team behind this latest project has studied 40 royal mummies of the New Kingdom since the Egyptian Antiquity Ministry Project that was launched in 2005. This, however, could be just the beginning of what cutting-edge imaging could bring to our understanding of ancient Egypt and beyond, the researchers say.

“We show that CT imaging can be profitably used in anthropological and archeological studies on mummies, including those from other civilizations, for example, Peru,” the study authors conclude.

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