Mummies Scanned to Unravel the Beautiful Mysteries Bound Inside
Thanks to modern CT technology, archaeologists have now been able to look deep within three ancient Egyptian mummies discovered back in 1615 AD. Discovered in a rock-cut tomb more than four centuries ago at the ancient Egyptian necropolis of Saqqara, the adult male and female mummies, along with a teen mummy, represent “the only surviving” stucco-shrouded portrait mummies. Rather than being laid in coffins, they had been placed on wooden planks before being wrapped in high quality mummy shrouds and decorated with 3D plaster, gold and whole-body portraits.
A new study of the three ancient Egyptian mummies has been published in the journal PLOS One by Dr. Stephanie Zesch, a physical anthropologist and Egyptologist from the German Mummy Project at Reiss Engelhorn Museum in Mannheim, Germany. Dr. Zesch’s team of researchers CT scanned the man, woman and teenage girl and all three mummies were all dated to around 30 BC to 395 AD which was the late Roman period in Egypt.
Both females were buried with beautiful necklaces. CT scan showed the beads from the woman’s necklace around the neck and body. (Zesch S, et al. PLOS One / CC BY 4.0)
Scanning the Supernatural Tool Kit
In 1615 the Italian composer Pietro Della Valle (1586−1652) travelled through Egypt while on a pilgrimage to the Holy Land. While there, he bought two of the stucco-shrouded portrait mummies and sent them back to Rome. The researchers describe them as “the earliest examples of portrait mummies ever known in Europe,” although their extensive travel has rendered them “a little worse for wear.”
Nevertheless, the pair of adult mummies made their way to the Dresden State Art Collections in Germany where they were X-rayed in the late 1980s. The teenage girl’s stucco-shrouded portrait mummy is housed at the Museum of Egyptian Antiquities in Cairo. Now, thanks to modern CT scans, the researchers have been able to penetrate much deeper than before.
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The portrait of the male depicts him holding a golden cup and flowers, while the female holds a lekythos, which is a Greek vessel for holding oil. The two female mummy portraits showed them wearing elaborate bead necklaces. All three were buried with the artifacts needed in the journey to the afterlife. Among these spiritual tools were coins required to pay the mystical boatman Charon, the Roman and Greek deity who sailed souls across the River Styx.
The scans also revealed the woman had two metallic objects, which appear similar to nails or arrows, located near her stomach and two lead objects were also discovered in the male mummy. These are thought to be seals from the mummification workshop.
The female mummies were wearing beautiful necklaces. A volume rendered reconstruction showing the details of the young female portrait mummy with beads around the neck, the thoracic region and a hairpin on top of her head. (Zesch S, et al. PLOS One / CC BY 4.0)
Measuring up the Ancient Egyptian Deceased
The CT scans revealed that the adult woman had died between the ages of 30 and 40, and while living she stood about 151 cm (4.11 in.) tall. It was also determined that the woman had suffered from arthritis in her left knee. The male measures about 164 centimeters (5.4 in.) tall and died between the ages of 25 and 30. Many of his bones were found "broken and jumbled” which is thought to have occurred when he was hastily wrapped up after being discovered in the 17th century.
The girl died between the ages of 17 and 19 and had stood at about 156 cm (5.1 in.) tall when alive. Her stucco-shrouded portrait mummy is housed at the Museum of Egyptian Antiquities, Cairo, and it shows her wearing several necklaces, which were all identified by the scans. The girl had a “vertebral hemangioma,” a benign tumor in her spine, which the researchers say is normally found in older adults. While her brain “had shrunk over the millennia” it was still preserved, but neither the man’s or woman’s brains have survived the test of time.
Upper Class Ancient Egyptians
While it was determined that all three people, whose remains lie shrouded in these unique stucco-shrouded portrait mummies, had died at young ages, the researcher told Live Science that their precise causes of death could not be determined. But what did become obvious during the course of the project was that the three people had enjoyed a life of relative wealth in ancient Egypt, a civilization which had three main social classes: upper, middle, and lower.
Belonging to the upper class, the three people might have been members of a royal family. Perhaps the man was an army officer or rich landowner, or the woman a government official or doctor. The middle classes were made up chiefly of merchants, manufacturers, and artisans, and while they enjoyed a comfortable life compared with the lower class, only the elites of ancient Egyptian society were buried at the royal Saqqara necropolis.
Top image: Left: Female portrait mummy scanned thanks to modern CT technology. Center and right: Scan of female mummy. The female was placed on a wooden board, wrapped in a textile and decorated with 3D plaster, gold and a whole-body portrait. Source: (Zesch S, et al. / PLOS One)
By Ashley Cowie