Digital Unwrapping of Pharaoh’s Mummy Reveals Curly Hair, Amulets, and Jewellery

Digital Unwrapping of Pharaoh’s Mummy Reveals Curly Hair, Amulets, and Jewellery
The face mask of Amenhotep I. (Photo: Saleem et al., Frontiers in Medicine 2021)

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

A CT scan of Amenhotep I's body inside its wrappings. (Image: Saleem et al., Frontiers in Medicine 2021) A CT scan of Amenhotep I’s body inside its wrappings. (Image: Saleem et al., Frontiers in Medicine 2021)

Amenhotep I reigned from 1525 BCE to 1504 BCE, during ancient Egypt’s 18th Dynasty. About 400 years after his death, his mummy was opened in order to repair damage done by grave robbers and subsequently reburied; in modern times, it’s been kept at the Egyptian Museum in Cairo. Officials had at the museum decided against opening the mummy due to its beautiful preservation, including millennia-old flower garlands adorning the body, according to a press release about the new research.

The scientists aimed to understand the events surrounding Amenhotep’s death, mummification, and later reburial. They found that he died in his mid-30s and was around 1.52 m 5 inches tall. Details of their work are published in Frontiers in Medicine.

Sahar Saleem, a radiologist at Cairo University and the study’s lead author, told Gizmodo that one of the most exciting elements of the research was “the opportunity to reveal the face of Amenhotep I and to see that his facial features resembled those of his father, Ahmose I.” The discoveries were possible, Saleem said, thanks to “the advancement of technology that enabled digital unwrapping of the mummy non-invasively, preserving it.”

CT (computed tomography) scans — the kind used to look at Amenhotep’s remains — use X-rays to image regions of the body that are otherwise inaccessible. The scans take thousands of images of slices of the body, which can be assembled into high-quality 3D views. The technology is of particular use for examining mummies, given that the remains are both fragile and ensconced in many layers of wrappings. Just this year, CT scans illuminated a 3,200-year-old mud-covered mummy and revealed the first known pregnant mummy, which previously was misidentified as male.

A CT scan of the head of Amenhotep I, which still has some of the pharaoh's hair. (Photo: Saleem et al., Frontiers in Medicine 2021) A CT scan of the head of Amenhotep I, which still has some of the pharaoh’s hair. (Photo: Saleem et al., Frontiers in Medicine 2021)

The scans revealed 30 different amulets and a girdle made of gold beads adorning the mummy. They couldn’t find any indication that Amenhotep I died of a flesh wound or noticeable disease. The body had been mutilated, but the researchers suspect that was done post-mortem by grave robbers. The areas that had been hacked at were the neck and limbs — typical places for jewellery, the researchers noted in the study.

The researchers found that the pharaoh still has some locks of hair, which are curly. He still has all his teeth, and the top row protrudes slightly. The pharaoh was circumcised, and his penis was independently wrapped. Special wrappings were applied to the head, hands, and genitals to help the deceased’s journey to the afterlife, Saleem explained.

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

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

Saleem added that some of the adornments on the mummy were likely added by the later embalmers to address those hack marks made by grave robbers. Even several centuries after a pharaoh’s death, the ancient Egyptians still made sure their dead were cared for.

More: The 11 Coolest Archaeological Finds of 2021


Editor’s Note: Release dates within this article are based in the U.S., but will be updated with local Australian dates as soon as we know more.