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Scientists use new technique to uncover clues about the identity of a 1,900-year-old Egyptian mummy

A team of scientists has pioneered a new method to uncover clues about an 1,900-year-old mummy without damaging the ancient corpse. 

CT scans and X-rays were combined for the first time to study an Egyptian mummy that was discovered in Hawara, an archaeological site in Egypt

While X-ray technology has been used to examine mummies for almost 100 years, combining X-ray diffraction with CT scanning is completely new and provides much higher resolution imagery, according to findings published in the Journal of the Royal Society Interface on Tuesday.  

A CT can was deployed to form a ‘three dimensional roadmap’ of the contents of the mummy,’ lead author Stuart Stock told CNN

Experts then shone X-ray beams thinner than a human hair onto the corpse to identify objects contained within its wrappings.

While X-ray technology has been used to examine mummies for almost 100 years, scientists combined X-ray diffraction with CT scanning in a completely new way, providing much higher resolution imagery, according to research published on Tuesday

A CT can was deployed to form a 'three dimensional roadmap' of the contents of the mummy,' lead author Stuart Stock told CNN . Experts then shone X-ray beams thinner than a human hair onto the corpse to identify objects contained within its wrappings

A CT can was deployed to form a ‘three dimensional roadmap’ of the contents of the mummy,’ lead author Stuart Stock told CNN . Experts then shone X-ray beams thinner than a human hair onto the corpse to identify objects contained within its wrappings

‘The X-rays give off what is essentially a fingerprint that is characteristic of the material,’ Stock, a researcher at Northwestern University’s Feinberg School of Medicine in Chicago, said.    

But what the researchers – from Northwestern University, Argonne National Laboratory and Metropolitan State University of Denver – found surprised them.

The corpse did not belong to an adult woman, as previously believed, but to a child who had not developed her permanent teeth, Phys.org reported. The girl is believed to have been around five when she died. 

A small piece of pure calcium carbonate was identified in her wrappings, which experts believed to be a scarab beetle.

The corpse did not belong to an adult woman, as previously believed, but to a child who had not developed her permanent teeth, Phys.org reported. The girl is believed to have been around five when she died

The corpse did not belong to an adult woman, as previously believed, but to a child who had not developed her permanent teeth, Phys.org reported. The girl is believed to have been around five when she died 

Scans show the skeleton of the mummy inside as well as a number of green object, believed to be metal pins left by previous researchers

Scans show the skeleton of the mummy inside as well as a number of green object, believed to be metal pins left by previous researchers 

When preparing a body for mummification, priests would place amulets between the layers of linen used to wrap the deceased person. 

The beetles, which were associated with the Ancient Egyptian sun god Re, were often placed inside the abdomen of bodies during mummification.  

Amulets of scarab beetles like the one above were often placed between the wrappings of a mummy. Sometimes real beetles were also included [File photo]

Amulets of scarab beetles like the one above were often placed between the wrappings of a mummy. Sometimes real beetles were also included [File photo]

‘This opaque object is about the right shape for a scarab,’ Stock told CNN. ‘The scarab is the symbol of rebirth.’ 

The finding offered new clues about the social status of the mummy.

‘This person was in the upper echelons of society. They could afford to have a scarab and mummification, which required a tremendous amount of resources,’ Stock said.  

The scans revealed still more clues about the child inside, even ruling out some potential causes of death.

‘It looks like there was no skeletal trauma,’ Stock told CNN, meaning it is unlikely the child died a violent death.

However their actual cause of death remains a mystery. 

The new information has been added to what experts could already determine from a portrait attached to the mummy.

The figure depicted wears a hairstyle that has been dated to between 150 and 200 AD. 

Advanced imaging shows layers beneath an intact portrait on the mummy's wrappings, which were common during mummifications in the 1st century

An intact portrait on the mummy depicted an adult woman, leading researchers to believe that the body inside was also that of an adult woman

A scan of a portrait on the mummy (left) can be seen next to the intact painting (right). Such portraits were common during 1st century mummifications and usually depicted the person within the wrappings, leading researchers to initially believe that the mummy contained the body of an adult woman

Portraits were often attached to mummies in the 1st century, usually depicting the person inside. The portrait on this mummy however, is an adult women so it is not clear if the painting is of someone else or an imagined image of the little girl as an adult. 

Researchers believe the new scanning technique could be expanded to other studies on mummies, allowing specialists to examine the corpses without tampering with them.

‘Back in the day [in Victorian times], they would take them apart,’ Stock told CNN. 

‘We don’t like to do that anymore.’


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