As It Happens

How scientists 'unwrapped' an Egyptian pharaoh's mummy while leaving it perfectly intact

Sahar Saleem is the first person to gaze upon the unwrapped face of Pharaoh Amenhotep I in more than 3,000 years. And thanks to modern computer scanning technology, she did it without physically unwrapping the ancient mummy.

3D scanning technology allowed researchers to study Pharaoh Amenhotep I while maintaining preservation

On the left, Amenhotep I is pictured in his elaborate funeral mask. On the right, a 3D image of his skull is revealed by CT scans and digital imaging software. (Sahar Saleem and Zahi Hawass)

Sahar Saleem was the first person to gaze upon the face of Pharaoh Amenhotep I in more than 3,000 years. 

And thanks to modern computer scanning technology, she did it without having to physically unwrap the ancient Egyptian mummy.

"This was a thrilling moment for me," the Cairo University radiologist told As It Happens guest host Dave Seglins.

Saleem and Egyptologist Zahi Hawass used a computed tomography (CT) machine to "digitally unwrap" the mummy of Amenhotep I in 2019 before it was moved to a new collection at Cairo's National Museum of Egyptian Civilization. 

Their findings — which were published Tuesday in the journal Frontiers in Medicine — are being hailed as an example of how modern technology allows researchers to peer into the past without inflicting unnecessary damage or disrespect. 

'A time capsule'

Amenhotep I was an 18th Dynasty king who ruled Egypt from about 1525 to 1504 BC and was the son of New Kingdom founder Ahmose I.

His body was painstakingly mummified at the peak of ancient Egyptian civilization using the best and most expensive embalming materials imported from around the world, according to Saleem.

"I would describe his body as a time capsule," she said.

This 3D CT image of the wrapped mummy of Amenhotep I shows his funerary mask, head and bandages. Physically unwrapping mummies, while once common, is now avoided in an effort to preserve the wrappings and mask. (Sahar Saleem and Zahi Hawass)

Scientists know that Amenhotep I was unwrapped once before, likely in 11th century BC by priests believed to be repairing damage done by tomb robbers.

But unlike most known royal mummies, his body has never been physically unwrapped and examined in the modern era. 

That's largely due to longstanding efforts to preserve the mummy's elaborate linen wrappings and funerary mask.

"It's all covered with the garlands of still colourful flowers, and a very beautiful mask that made me eager to unwrap the mummy and see what's behind all of these wrappings," Saleem said.

"But of course, we could not physically unwrap the mummy. This would ruin it. So we did that digitally with the help of computers."

This isn't the first time a mummy has been CT scanned, but the study's authors say this marks the first comprehensive analysis of this kind of work. 

3D scans like slices of bread

The actual process of scanning the mummy with a CT machine was simple, says Saleem, and took less than an hour.

The hard work came after, when the researchers used software to look at thousands of cross-section CT images — each thinner than a human hair — and then layered them to form stunningly detailed 3D images of what lies beneath the wrappings.

"[It's] as if you have toast and you put the pieces of toast together to get the whole loaf of bread," Saleem said.

Sahar Saleem is a radiology professor at Cairo University and a member of the Egyptian Mummy Project. She said Amenhotep I looks like his father, Ahmose I, whose mummy was unwrapped in 1886. (Submitted by Sahar Saleem)

The scans revealed a man who was about 35 years old when he died. His teeth are remarkably well-preserved. His body is adorned with more than 30 amulets or other pieces of jewelry. He appears to have been in good health, and his cause of death remains unknown. 

Unlike most royal mummies that have been studied, Amenhotep I's brain was never removed — showing that mummification was likely a more diverse and varied practice than scientists once believed. 

But what stood out the most for Saleem was his face. She says he looks like his father, Ahmose I, whose mummy was unwrapped in 1886 and is currently on display at Egypt's Luxor Museum.

"This was also very interesting from the human side," she said. 

A more respectful way to learn 

Carrie Arbuckle MacLeod, a Canadian archeologist who specializes in ancient Egypt, says she was in "awe" when she saw the images.

"It really is breathtaking," said the post-doctoral researcher at the University of British Columbia.

She says these technologies are changing the way researchers approach archeological research for the better. 

Early excavators would unwrap mummies all the time, she said. In fact, when mummies were first being dug up, she says there was a "craze" for hosting "mummy unwrapping parties." 

"All these rich individuals would get together in their salons and unwrap a mummy, and it was this big spectacle. And it really wasn't done at that point for knowledge or for education; it was just done for the wow factor," she said.

"Not only have we lost a lot of knowledge, but it's incredibly disrespectful to the deceased."

Arbuckle MacLeod hopes to see 3D scanning technology employed more in the future, but says researchers should still make ethical considerations about when to use it. 

"These mummies, when they were buried, didn't want anyone to know what they were buried with. They wanted to maintain their secrecy. So even though we aren't unwrapping them physically, we are still sort of breaking that boundary," she said.

"So I still think we should be careful about which mummies we're CT scanning. We should have reasons to scan them, and then do it with … respect and remind people that these are individuals. These are people that we're looking at."


Written by Sheena Goodyear with files from Reuters. Interview produced by Abby Plener.

Add some “good” to your morning and evening.

A variety of newsletters you'll love, delivered straight to you.

Sign up now

Comments

To encourage thoughtful and respectful conversations, first and last names will appear with each submission to CBC/Radio-Canada's online communities (except in children and youth-oriented communities). Pseudonyms will no longer be permitted.

By submitting a comment, you accept that CBC has the right to reproduce and publish that comment in whole or in part, in any manner CBC chooses. Please note that CBC does not endorse the opinions expressed in comments. Comments on this story are moderated according to our Submission Guidelines. Comments are welcome while open. We reserve the right to close comments at any time.

Become a CBC Member

Join the conversation  Create account

Already have an account?

now