Of the many ancient Egyptian royal mummies discovered by antiquarians and archaeologists in the 19th and 20th centuries, almost all were subsequently unwrapped by eager Egyptologists keen to find out more about their contents. The only known exception is the mummy of Pharaoh Amenhotep I, who ruled in the 18th Dynasty, c.1525-1504 BC.
Amenhotep I’s mummy was discovered in 1881 at the Deir el-Bahari Royal Cache – a tomb near Luxor in southern Egypt where several New Kingdom royal mummies were reburied by priests in the 21st Dynasty – and was left intact because researchers were reluctant to disturb its perfectly preserved wrappings and elaborate decorations. Two X-ray studies of the mummy were carried out, in 1932 and in 1967, but these investigations were not able to reveal much consistent or detailed information. Now a team of scientists have used CT (computed tomography) scans to ‘unwrap’ Amenhotep I digitally and learn more about the mummy and its contents without damaging any of the external wrappings.
CT is an advanced form of imaging, which uses a series of X-rays to provide highly detailed reconstructed images. It can capture soft tissue as well as bones. This technology enabled researchers to peel back the layers virtually and study the face mask, the bandages, and the mummy itself in unprecedented detail. They discovered that, at the time of his death, Amenhotep I was around 35 years old, c.169cm tall, circumcised, and had a full set of healthy teeth. Researchers were even able to tell that he seems to have resembled his father, Ahmose I, with curly hair, a narrow chin and nose, and slightly protruding upper teeth. The CT scans also identified 30 amulets and a metallic beaded girdle, possibly made of gold, inside the mummy’s wrappings. The scans did not reveal any evidence of wounds or disfigurement caused by disease that could be clearly linked to Amenhotep’s cause of death, although there were a number of post-mortem marks caused by grave robbers. Also revealed was a cut on the left side of his body through which his entrails were removed during the original mummification process, although his heart and brain were left in place.
In addition to revealing these details, the CT scans shed new light on the reburial processes that Amenhotep underwent over 400 years after his death. Hieroglyphic records on his coffin tell us that it was reopened twice in the 11th century BC – once by Pinedjem I, Theban High Priest of Amun, and a decade later by his son Masarharta – so that the damage inflicted by grave robbers looking for jewels and amulets between the mummy’s wrappings and inside the body could be repaired and the mummy prepared for reburial. Researchers previously suspected that the main goal of these 21st Dynasty restorers may have been to reuse some of the burial equipment from older royal mummies for later pharaohs. However, the CT scans revealed the opposite to be true, at least in the case of Amenhotep I. The Theban priests appear to have carried out careful repairs to injuries caused by the grave robbers, fixing Amenhotep’s detached head and neck back to his body with a linen band, covering an injury to his abdomen with another band and placing two amulets underneath, and wrapping his disarticulated left arm to his body, among others. What’s more, far from taking materials from the burial, they carefully preserved all of the mummy’s jewellery and amulets in place and rewrapped it with care, painstakingly restoring it to its former glory.
The research was carried out as part of the Egyptian Mummy Project. Since the project was launched in 2005, Dr Sahar Saleem and Dr Zahi Hawass have studied more than 40 royal mummies of the New Kingdom, demonstrating the benefits of CT imaging for this kind of investigation (see CWA 106 for another example of their work). The research on Amenhotep I’s mummy has now been published in Frontiers in Medicine (https://doi.org/10.3389/fmed.2021.778498).
IMAGES: Sahar Saleem.