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Scientists digitally ‘unwrap’ 3,000-year-old mummy of pharaoh

CT scans revealed Amenhotep I looked like his father and — unlike pharaohs before him — the priests who buried him left his brain inside his skull.

(CN) — Scientists using three-dimensional CT scanning have ‘unwrapped’ the mummy of the Pharaoh Amenhotep I for the first time in three millennia.

According to an study published Monday in the journal Frontiers in Medicine, the digital examination of the mummy revealed Amenhotep I’s face for the first time ever and allowed researchers to learn more about his life, death and burial. The technique could be used on future mummies and in other civilizations.

Amenhotep I is the only royal mummy discovered during the 19th and 20th century that has not been physically opened or dissected for study, largely because of the mummy’s exquisite wrappings, including flower garlands and a lifelike facemask. Amenhotep I ruled ancient Egypt during the 18th dynasty from approximately 1525 to 1504 B.C. His mummy was only opened once since that burial — more than 400 years later so that priests could restore and rebury the mummies that had been damaged by grave robbers.

His mummy was found in 1881 in a tomb near Luxor and more than 3,000 years have elapsed since the mummy was opened.

“Royal mummies of the New Kingdom were the most well-preserved ancient bodies ever found,” said Sahar Saleem, professor of radiology at Cairo University and lead author of the study. She compared the mummies to a time capsule from ancient Egypt. “They can give us information about [what] the ancient kings and queens looked like, their health, ancient diseases, mummification technique, manufacturing techniques of their funerary objects such as funerary masks, amulets, jewelry, coffins.”

Saleem said she took thousands of computed tomography (CT) scans, an advanced form of X-rays. When combined, the images complete a 3D reconstruction of the body, “like slices of toast when put together make a full loaf of bread.”

Using this detailed reconstruction, the researchers determined that Amenhotep I was approximately 35 years old when he died. They also learned Amenhotep was 5 foot, 5 inches, circumcised, had good teeth and had no wounds or disfigurement from disease to suggest cause of death.

The scans even allowed researchers to compare Amenhotep I’s face to that of other mummies.

“King Amenhotep I looked like his father King Ahmose I,” said Saleem. In a press release accompanying the study, the researchers noted that both pharaohs shared “a narrow chin, a small narrow nose, curly hair and mildly protruding upper teeth.”

Researchers also found things unique to Amenhotep I. Saleem said he was the first to cross his arms over his chest in the manner widely recognized in cultural depictions of mummies. Other noteworthy things Saleem's team found include the traces of organs left within the mummified body and jewelry buried with the pharaoh.

“During mummification of Amenhotep I, the brain was not removed but shrank and occupied the back of the skull. However, most royal mummies of the New Kingdom had their brain removed through the nose by a hooked metal instrument,” Saleem said. “The mummy had 30 amulets in between the wrappings. The mummy wore a golden girdle made of 34 golden beads.”

The researchers said the jewelry helped disprove their own hypothesis that priests exhumed Amenhotep I a few hundred years after his death to reuse the royal burial equipment for later pharaohs. Rather, the scans show the priests restored damage done to the mummy by grave robbers and left the amulets and jewelry in place.

Saleem said paleoradiology — the scanning of archaeological remains — is a “[rapidly] growing specialty” that allows Egyptologists and radiologists to use CT scanning outside of the clinical sphere to “provide valuable information in identifications of the mummy in a noninvasive way.”

The research could pave the way for digitally unwrapping other mummies from ancient Egypt and other ancient civilizations, like those in Peru. CT imaging techniques can also be deployed in forensic medicine to provide information in mass disasters, homicides and cadavers naturally mummified by extreme environmental conditions.

Saleem said the method demonstrated that researchers can avoid damaging the historically significant artifacts and still “digitally unwrap the mummy and reveal its secrets.”

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