Digitally Unpacking Pharaoh’s Mummy Reveals Curly Hair, Amulets and Jewelry

Amenhotep I’s face mask. Photo: Saleem et al., Frontiers in Medicine 2021

Pharaoh Amenhotep I’s mummy has been undisturbed for thousands of years, but now scientists have used non-invasive imaging to see inside the burial wrappers. Their investigation has revealed new details about a life cut short, though it’s still a mystery why this ruler died around the age of 35.

A CT scan of Amenhotep I’s body inside the sheaths. Image: Saleem et al., Frontiers in Medicine 2021

Amenhotep I ruled from 1525 BCE to 1504 BCE, during the 18th dynasty of ancient Egypt. About 400 years after his death, his mummy was opened to repair the damage done by grave robbers and then reburied; in modern times it is kept in the Egyptian Museum in Cairo. Officials at the museum had decided not to open the mummy due to its beautiful preservation, which includes millennia-old garlands adorning the body, according to one press release about the new research.

The scientists wanted to understand the events surrounding Amenhotep’s death, mummification, and later reburial. They found that he died in his mid-thirties and was about six feet tall. Details of their work are: published in Frontiers in Medicine.

Sahar Saleem, a radiologist at Cairo University and lead author of the study, told Gizmodo that one of the most exciting elements of the study was “the ability to reveal the face of Amenhotep I and to see his facial features resemble that of his father, Ahmose I.” The discoveries were made possible, Saleem said, thanks to “the advancement of technology that allowed for digitally extracting the mummy in a non-invasive way, preserving it.”

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CT (computed tomography) scans — the kind used to look at Amenhotep’s remains — use X-rays to image parts of the body that are otherwise inaccessible. The scans create thousands of images of body parts, which can be merged into high-quality 3D views. The technology is particularly useful for examining mummies, as the remains are both fragile and hidden in many layers of casings. Only this year did CT scans illuminate a 3,200-year-old mud-covered mummy and revealed the first known pregnant mom, who was previously incorrectly identified as male.

A CT scan of the head of Amenhotep I, which still shows part of the pharaoh’s hair. Photo: Saleem et al., Frontiers in Medicine 2021

The scans revealed 30 different amulets and a belt of gold beads adorning the mummy. They could find no indication that Amenhotep I died of a flesh wound or any noticeable disease. The body was mutilated, but the researchers suspect that the postmortem was done by grave robbers. The areas hacked were the neck and limbs — typical places for jewelry, the researchers noted in the study.

The researchers discovered that the pharaoh still has a few strands of hair, which are curled. He still has all his teeth and the top row sticks out slightly. The pharaoh was circumcised and his penis was wrapped separately. Special sheaths were applied to the head, hands and genitals to facilitate the deceased’s journey to the afterlife, Saleem explained.

“He reigned in the New Kingdom era: the pinnacle of ancient Egyptian civilization,” Saleem said. “The civilization at that time was very rich and advanced in all aspects, including mummification. Royal mummies of the New Kingdom were the best-preserved ancient bodies ever found.”

There is no evidence that the embalmers attempted to remove the pharaoh’s brain, which is still in the skull, nor his heart. Typically, Saleem said, “the embalmers removed the internal organs to prevent putrefaction of the body. All organs were removed except the heart, because the ancient Egyptians believed that the heart was the home of the soul.”

Saleem added that some of the decorations on the mummy were likely added by the later embalmers to address the chop marks made by grave robbers. Even several centuries after a pharaoh’s death, the ancient Egyptians still took care of their dead.

More: The 11 Coolest Archaeological Finds of 2021

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