Scanning the Pharaohs: CT Imaging of the New Kingdom Royal Mummies is the latest page-turner from Zahi Hawass, former Egyptian Minister of the State for Antiquities, with Sahar N Saleem, a professor of radiology at Cairo University. The book contains the results of Hawass’s Egyptian Mummy Project, which examined 25 of the most famous New Kingdom (16th-11th centuries BC) royal mummies stored in the Egyptian Museum in Cairo.
Elaborating on a previous study by James E Harris and Kent R Weeks in 1973 (X-raying the Pharaohs), the new venture, launched in 2005, used the most recent techniques in medical imagery to allow the careful evaluation of the fragile ancient bodies. It has provided minute details on everything from the attempted coup and assassination of Pharaoh Ramesses III to the shocking treatment of Tutankhamen by his finders.
Advances in computed tomography (CT) scanning have enabled this unprecedented analysis of the elite bodies. The process works as follows: once the mummy is scanned, much as when we place our own bodies in one of these CT machines, hundreds of thin sections produce a complete image of the body in three dimensions and in incredible detail. The new technique also harnessed the recent innovation of Multi-Detector Computed Tomography, in which surfaces are rendered with exceptional accuracy. In addition, Multiplanar Reconstruction was able to measure the densities within the bodies to determine the nature of the embalming materials and artefacts within the wrapping. The full arsenal of CT scanning allowed three-dimensional reconstructions of the body, its internal structure, and even facial reconstructions.
These developments in radiology technology also mean that the scientists have managed to provide new details about each mummy, including likely cause of death, and age range at death. Moreover, the researchers have been able to evaluate previously thorny theories regarding the identification of nameless mummies. For as you may know, except in a couple of cases, with Tutankhamen as the most famous, no royal mummies have ever been found in their original context, hence the identification issues. Instead, most of the mummies now stored in the Egyptian Museum in Cairo were discovered in caves, after having been hidden by 11th-century BC priests attempting to preserve the royal bodies from looters. But by coupling the new technology with other scientific methods, a number of these mummies are now named. For example, using a single tooth, the team has identified the body of Queen Hatshepsut, the woman who became king in 1478 BC. The mummy of Queen Tiye, the wife of the great Pharaoh Amenhotep III and mother of Akhenaten, was identified through the analysis of a lock of her hair, described as ‘brown and lustrous’ when discovered in the 1920s during the excavation of the tomb of her grandson, Tutankhamen.
In addition, Hawass and Saleem detail how they scrutinised an unidentified skeleton found in the tomb KV (King’s Valley) 55, which they now believe to be that of Pharaoh Akhenaten, the likely father of King Tutankhamen. They also re-examined Dr Joann Fletcher’s 2003 hypothesis that the mummy of the ‘Younger Lady’, discovered in tomb KV 35, was the body of the famous Nefertiti, wife of Akhenaten, and possible mother of Tutankhamen. In fact, the team goes further than pondering the hypothesis: for them, the DNA analysis supports the assumption that this mummy was the mother of Pharaoh Tutankhamen. Moreover, it seems that she could also be the daughter of Amenhotep III and Queen Tiye. Indeed, Marc Gabolde, a French Egyptologist who studied the DNA test results, also extrapolated that this Younger Lady was Nefertiti and the mother of Tutankhamen. However, the genetic link to Akhenaten, he argues, would be due to marriage between first cousins, thus inbreeding the DNA. With the current excitement regarding potential hidden chambers in the tomb of Tutankhamen, we can but hope that more archaeological materials will be found, so adding to this study.
As for the other mummies of the 19th and 20th Dynasty, the team also confirmed the identification of the mummy of King Seti I, with its Hollywood-famous face, and the mummy of Ramesses II, who was transported to France with royal honours in 1976-1977 to be treated against fungi.
The new scanning project has also shed light on other intriguing issues. One particularly interesting case study is that of the mummy of Pharaoh Ramesses III (1184-1153 BC). The pharaoh is famous for his large temple complex in Medinet Habu, and also for being the target of the ‘conspiracy of the harem’, a coup known thanks to the judicial papyrus of Turin.
Selected extracts highlight the trials of the protagonists, and more specifically, their punishments. From the phrasing and vocabulary of the Egyptian text, it has not always been clear whether the king had survived this murder attempt in the heart of the harem. The current CT scanning images have now answered this question: the body of Ramesses III shows clear signs of damage to the neck and the throat, which severed the large blood vessels. Additionally the embalmers had placed an eye of Horus amulet, known for its healing magic, at the exact location of the deadly cut. It is reasonable to think that by doing so, they wanted the amulet to magically heal the wound for the king’s afterlife.
The team also scanned the perplexing remains of a young man: his body was not mummified, but merely dried by sprinkling some natron salts and covered with a sheepskin, and his dead face still bears a tortured expression. Using DNA analysis, coupled with details provided by the judicial papyrus, Zahi Hawass may have identified this body as Pentawere. This was the royal son who tried to overturn his father, Ramesses III, during the harem conspiracy, and who was said to have been forced to commit suicide. It is striking how time seems to have preserved the screaming face of a strangled man.
Of further interest are the CT images of Tutankhamen, the boy-king who will be forever linked with his finder, Howard Carter. Yet among the discoveries made from the scans has been the shocking treatment inflicted on his remains by Howard Carter and his collaborator Douglas Berry. The removal of the mummy from its coffin clearly did not go smoothly, as resin had seeped out and glued the body to the wooden boards. During the original unwrapping in 1922, the head was severed and the body was actually broken into pieces: arms and legs were detached, extremities and joints of the body were disarticulated, and the spine was separated from the lower part of the body in the lumbar area.
Though some have questioned the need for a new study of these already heavily scrutinised mummies, the quality and accuracy of the new images are most valuable. For me, final standout examples include the amount of detail represented in the three-dimensional reconstruction of the foetuses discovered in Tutankhamen’s tomb; the minute bones are clearly outlined and their features eerily delicate. Likewise, the transversal sections of the mummy of Amenhotep III are so detailed that they clearly show the thickness of the skin. It appears embalmers made it thicker and more resistant by coating it with resin, a fact that was not previously known.
This, then, is a beautifully produced book. It offers plenty of solid background on the pharaohs and will appeal to all those interested in mummies, Egyptology, and indeed the scientific resolution of ancient family dramas.
Kimberley Watt is undertaking a PhD in Egyptology at Trinity Hall, Cambridge.
ALL IMAGES: Zahi Hawass, Sahar Saleem, and the Egyptian Mummy Project
Scanning the Pharaohs: CT Imaging of the New Kingdom Royal Mummies
By Z A Hawass and S N Saleem
The American University, £40