CAIRO, Egypt — Scientists have unwrapped a royal mummy that has remained untouched for the last 3,000 years — virtually at least! For the first time, a team in Egypt used CT scans to see inside the burial wrappings of pharaoh Amenhotep I.
The former king of ancient Egypt is still the only royal mummy in modern history to remain unopened by scientists or grave robbers. This isn’t because of some ancient curse scaring people away, but because Egyptologists refuse to disturb the perfectly preserved decorations covering Amenhotep’s mummy.
Researchers say the pharaoh’s wrappings have only been opened once, about 400 years after his death. Ancient hieroglyphics describe how Egyptian priests restored several royal mummies in the 11th century BC, after grave robbers damaged these famous remains. The priests wrapped Amenhotep’s body in beautiful flower garlands with life-like face carved into the head of his casket.
To continue the tradition of leaving pharaoh Amenhotep I undisturbed, scientists turned to three-dimensional CT (computed tomography) scanning to “digitally unwrap” his tomb.
“This fact that Amenhotep I’s mummy had never been unwrapped in modern times gave us a unique opportunity: not just to study how he had originally been mummified and buried, but also how he had been treated and reburied twice, centuries after his death, by High Priests of Amun,” says Dr. Sahar Saleem, professor of radiology at Cairo University and the radiologist of the Egyptian Mummy Project, in a media release.
Learning about the man named Amenhotep
The scans reveal the pharaoh was a relatively young man at the time of his death, being only 35 years-old. He stood between 5-foot-6 and 5-foot-7 and the team believes he was in good physical health when he died, apparently of natural causes.
“By digitally unwrapping of the mummy and ‘peeling off’ its virtual layers – the facemask, the bandages, and the mummy itself – we could study this well-preserved pharaoh in unprecedented detail,” Saleem says. “We show that Amenhotep I was approximately 35 years old when he died. He was approximately 169cm tall, circumcised, and had good teeth. Within his wrappings, he wore 30 amulets and a unique golden girdle with gold beads.”
“Amenhotep I seems to have physically resembled his father: he had a narrow chin, a small narrow nose, curly hair, and mildly protruding upper teeth,” the researcher adds. “We couldn’t find any wounds or disfigurement due to disease to justify the cause of death, except numerous mutilations postmortem, presumably by grave robbers after his first burial. His entrails had been removed by the first mummifiers, but not his brain or heart.”
Following in his famous father’s footsteps
Archeologists discovered the mummy in 1881 with other reburied royal mummies at Deir el Bahari in southern Egypt. Historians say Amenhotep took over for his father, Ahmose I, during ancient Egypt’s 18th dynasty.
Ahmose reunited Egypt after expelling the invading Hyksos. Researchers consider Amenhotep’s reign, between 1525 and 1504 BC, a golden age. They say the pharaoh led successful military expeditions into modern-day Libya and northern Sudan and also credit the young pharaoh for building several religious structures during this time.
Rethinking ancient burial practices
Before this study, Saleem and co-author Dr. Zahi Hawass speculated that the priests who restored the royal mummies in the 11th century reused burial equipment for later pharaohs. However, the fresh scans are rewriting this conclusion.
“We show that at least for Amenhotep I, the priests of the 21st dynasty lovingly repaired the injuries inflicted by the tomb robbers, restored his mummy to its former glory, and preserved the magnificent jewelry and amulets in place,” Saleem reports.
“We show that CT imaging can be profitably used in anthropological and archeological studies on mummies, including those from other civilizations, for example Peru,” the team concludes.
The team’s findings appear in the journal Frontiers in Medicine.