Researchers Digitally Unwrap Egyptian Pharaoh’s 3,500-Year-Old Mummy

intricate mask of Amenhotep I
Centuries after Amenhotep’s death, 21st-Dynasty priests reburied his mummy to protect it from grave robbers. S. Saleem and Z. Hawass

Researchers in Egypt have digitally unwrapped the mummy of Amenhotep I, revealing remarkably detailed information about the ancient pharaoh, including his age, height and facial shape.

“For the first time we can know information about the mummy without disturbing the mummy,” Egyptologist Zahi Hawass, who worked on the project, tells Charlene Gubash and Yuliya Talmazan of NBC News. 

Hawass and Sahar Saleem, a paleoradiology expert at Cairo University, used X-ray and computerized tomography (CT) scanning technology to create 3-D images of the ruler’s 3,500-year-old remains. The findings are newly published in the journal Frontiers in Medicine.

Also known as Amenophis I, Amenhotep ruled Egypt from 1525 to 1504 B.C.E. as the second king of the 18th Dynasty. His father, Ahmose I, reunified Egypt, defeating Hyksos forces to retake territory around the Nile River delta and launch the era known as the New Kingdom. 

Per Encyclopedia Britannica, Amenhotep was known for waging wars with Nubia that expanded Egypt’s borders. He reoccupied a Middle Kingdom fortress at Sinai, reopening mines there, and may have held territory in Syria. The ruler also built several temples, including a shrine to the god Amun at Karnak. He was the first pharaoh to be buried in a tomb separated from his mortuary temple, reports Jasmine Liu for Hyperallergic.

3-D scan of skull
The 3-D images allowed researchers to see details like the shape of the pharaoh’s chin. S. Saleem and Z. Hawass

The location of Amenhotep’s original grave is unknown. But in 1881, archaeologists discovered his mummy at Deir el-Bahri, a site in Luxor where 21st-Dynasty officials stashed a cache of royal mummies to protect them from tomb robbers.

Based on the condition of his bones, the researchers determined that Amenhotep was about 35 years old at the time of his demise. No obvious injuries or signs of disease point to his cause of death. 

In a statement, Saleem notes that Amenhotep—much like his father—had a narrow chin and nose, curly hair, and “mildly protruding upper teeth.” 

“He was approximately [5-foot-6], circumcised and had good teeth,” she says. “Within his wrappings, he wore 30 amulets and a unique golden girdle with gold beads.”

Speaking with Live Science’s Owen Jarus, Hawass adds that the girdle may have had “a magical meaning.” Each of the amulets, meanwhile, “had a function to help the deceased king in the afterlife.”

The majority of royal mummies known to survive today were unwrapped long ago. According to the study, 19th-century French Egyptologist Gaston Maspero, then Egypt’s director of antiquities, chose to leave Amenhotep’s mummy intact due to its “perfect wrapping” and “exquisite face mask.”

Images of skull inside sarcophagus
CT scans allowed researchers to create 3-D images of the mummy. S. Saleem and Z. Hawass

Hieroglyphic records show that this craftsmanship was the product of 21st-Dynasty priests who unwrapped, then rewrapped, Amenhotep to repair damage inflicted by looters. Sometime between 1070 and 945 B.C.E., they reattached the pharaoh’s head, which had been severed from his body; replaced bandages that had come undone; and embedded two new amulets in the mummy. Some researchers had suggested that the priests took ornaments from the mummy, but Saleem says the new images disprove this theory.

“Royal mummies of the New Kingdom were the most well-preserved ancient bodies ever found. Thus these mummies are considered as ‘time capsules,’” Saleem tells Hyperallergic. “They can give us information about how the ancient kings and queens looked, their health, ancient diseases, mummification technique, manufacturing techniques of their funerary objects (such as the funerary mask, amulets, jewelry, coffins).”

In recent years, imaging technology has allowed researchers to obtain more detailed images of mummies without damaging them through physical unwrapping. In 2020, teams used CT and X-ray diffraction to analyze the mummies of a Roman-era Egyptian child and a trio of animals. DNA analysis is also providing new insights into the lives of ancient people, helping to reconstruct the faces of people mummified thousands of years ago.

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