Technology lets us see inside a mummy

Ever wondered what a mummy looks like — unwrapped?

You can find out, thanks to 21st-century technology that allows scientists from around the world to see inside mummies without disturbing their fragile covering.

Conservator preparing a mummy for exhibition (© AMNH/D. Finnin)
A conservator at the Field Museum prepares the mummy known as the “Gilded Lady” for display. (©AMNH/D. Finnin)

Visitors at a new exhibition at the American Museum of Natural History in New York can meet the “Gilded Lady,” who died and was mummified in Egypt between 30 B.C.E. and 395 C.E.

American William Ayres legally purchased the mummy in Egypt in 1893 and brought it to Chicago in 1894. It remained relatively undisturbed at Chicago’s Field Museum until recently. Named “gilded” because of its gold-covered headdress, the lady is one of the most well-preserved mummies in the museum’s collection. Yet scientists could not examine the mummy without harming the remains.

Until now.

Seeing inside

Mummy going through a CT scan (© AMNH/C. Chesek)
Computerized tomography (CT) scanners take hundreds of X-ray images with each rotation. (©AMNH/C. Chesek)

Researchers at the Field Museum used noninvasive computerized tomography (CT) scans to view layer after layer of skin and bone as they carefully revealed the mummy.

Besides the gender of the person and the age at which she died (around 40), scientists learned that the remains were of someone who had curly hair and a slight overbite and who probably died of tuberculosis — a prevalent disease of the time.

Valuable lessons

The researchers used the 3-D printed images from the scans to recreate her skull, which French sculptor Elisabeth Daynès then used to forensically reconstruct a life-size statue of the preserved woman.

The "Gilded Lady" completed sculpture (© E. Daynès)
This sculpture portrays the “Gilded Lady” as she may have looked during her life in ancient Egypt. (© E. Daynès)

Museum guests learn how state-of-the-art tools and technologies teach scientists and scholars about ancient cultures.

Besides CT scans, scientists use isotopic testing and DNA analysis on mummies to learn about an individual’s health and diet, disease and epidemics, family relationships and connections to modern populations.

Egyptian scholars also rely on the latest technology. Egyptian nuclear cardiologist Dr. Adel Allam at Cairo’s Al Azhar University, for example, used CT scans of 4,000-year-old mummies to discover that heart disease was prevalent in ancient Egypt and not solely a disease of modern society.

Likewise, noted Egyptologist Zahi Hawass and Sahar Saleem, professor of radiology at Cairo University, used the new technologies to study the more than 3,000-year-old royal mummies in the Cairo Museum.


.Why mummify?

Egyptian coffin (© AMNH/C. Chesek)
(©AMNH/C. Chesek)

The ancient Egyptians performed the elaborate mummification process on their dead with the belief that it would help them carry on in the afterlife.

An application of gold on their ears, eyes and mouth was thought to preserve their hearing, sight and speech. Sometimes mummified animals or other artifacts were buried alongside the deceased to assist them in the next life.

The Gilded Lady is one of 18 mummies in the Mummies exhibition at the American Museum of Natural History, on display until January 7, 2018.