Secrets of only royal Egyptian mummy never to be unwrapped revealed thanks to CT scanner

The secrets of the only royal mummy from ancient Egypt never to be unwrapped have been revealed, thanks to the use of CT scanning technology.

The preserved body of Amenhotep I, who is thought to have reigned from 1525–1504 BC, has, since its discovery in 1881, never had its burial swaddle removed, in part to preserve a remarkably intact burial mask.

Using a CT (computed tomography) scanner normally associated with medical treatment, researchers were able to produce a detailed 3D model, including layered “slices”, of the mummy.

"By digitally unwrapping 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,” said Dr Sahar Saleem, first author of the study and a radiologist at both Cairo University and the Egyptian Mummy Project.

Dr Sahar Saleem, professor of radiology at the Faculty of Medicine at Cairo University and the radiologist of the Egyptian Mummy Project, scanning the perfectly wrapped mummified body of Amenhotep I

Credit: Dr Sahar Saleem/University of Cairo

Until now, the inability to unwrap the body had prevented Egyptologists from explaining a number of mysteries about Amenhotep I. The most prominent was the question of why he was found not in his own tomb but that of a pharaoh 400 to 500 years younger and having been twice rewrapped.

Amenhotep I had undergone X-ray studies at least twice before, once in 1932 and a second time in 1962. However, the 2D images proved difficult to interpret. The first X-ray study deemed the 18th dynasty pharaoh to have died aged 40 to 50, but the second argued that he was just 25.

That lack of clarity also left archaeologists debating why exactly the mummy had been moved. One suggestion was that it was so that funerary tributes, such as jewellery and amulets, could be removed and reused.

But, according to the authors of the new CT study, published in the journal Frontiers in Medicine, that theory has been thoroughly debunked.

Instead of being stripped of his gifts for the afterlife, Amenhotep I was, in fact, lovingly repaired and restored having been badly vandalised by grave robbers. 

The grave-robbing that plagues Egyptologists has a history as old as the mummies they study. Ancient papyri from the 10th and 11th centuries BC reveal how suspects were beaten with rods, forced to re-enact their crimes and then “impaled” once found guilty.

The documents also show that the culprits were often the very men who had worked on entombing their former kings, taking advantage of their knowledge of where the mummies were buried and with what goods.

A golden beaded girdle with a snail amulet, worn by Amenhotep I, which was hidden beneath wrappings and only revealed in a CT scan

Credit: Dr Sahar Saleem/University of Cairo

The CT scans of Amenhotep I revealed tell-tale signs of grave robbing, such as post-mortem injuries to the abdomen, from tomb raiders trying to find amulets inserted into the body.

With that being the case, it is likely that Amenhotep’s mummy was moved from his original tomb to Deir el-Bahari, near the ancient city of Luxor, in order to protect it from further desecration.

"We show that at least for Amenhotep I, the priests of the 21st dynasty lovingly repaired the injuries inflicted by the tomb robbers, restored his mummy to its former glory, and preserved the magnificent jewellery and amulets in place," said Dr Saleem.

Amenhotep I has been seen for the first time in centuries after being digitally 'unwrapped' with high-tech scanners

Credit: Dr Sahar Saleem/University of Cairo

Amenhotep I and his mother, Ahmose-Nefertari, were worshipped as gods after their deaths. The care with which his body was treated, even five centuries after his death, is indicative of the reverence reserved for former kings in ancient Egyptian society. 

As well as the reasons for his transportation and rewrapping, researchers have finally been able to give an exact age for Amenhotep I – 35 – and reconstruct his appearance.

According to the research paper: “Amenhetep I’s mummy has an oval face with sunken eyes and collapsed cheeks. The nose is small, narrow and flattened. The upper teeth are mildly protruding. The chin is narrow.”

The thorough study of the millennia-old corpse also reveals new details about how Egyptian mummification changed over the course of 30 centuries. It is considered the first mummy of the New Kingdom to have arms crossed at the chest and not to have its brain removed. 

Despite all that has been revealed by modern medical technology, there remain substantial questions surrounding Amenhotep I. For one, the CT scan was unable to reveal the cause of death of the pharaoh. Nor have archaeologists been able to determine with any certainty where his original tomb lies. 

Dr Saleem said: "We couldn’t find any wounds or disfigurement due to disease to justify the cause of death.”

Amenhotep I, whose name means "Amun is satisfied", was the second pharaoh of Egypt’s 18th dynasty after his father Ahmose I. He is believed to have expelled the invading Hyksos and reunited Egypt and to have successfully invaded Nubia, to the south of his kingdom.

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