Unwrapping the mystery of mummies

A new exhibition at the British Museum is set to showcase how developments in CT scans are advancing the study of Egyptian and Sudanese mummies. Ancient Lives, New Discoveries, which opens to the public on 22 May, will display eight mummies from the museum’s collection with interactive displays to showcase what these technological advances have revealed. The eight were chosen to give a cross-section of time periods, social status and mummification techniques.

The British Museum has been collecting mummies from the Nile Valley for over 200 years and has amassed some 120 in that time. Due to the museum’s policy of not unwrapping them, the secrets of these remains have been hidden until now. In the 1960s, x-rays were taken of the mummies, but what could be learned from those fuzzy images was limited. CT scans were taken before, in the early 2000s, but it is only now that the technology has progressed to the point that we can see what lies underneath the bandages in great detail.

The detail of what can be learned is extraordinary. Among the mummies is a female temple singer from 900 BC, whose sarcophagus tells us was named Tamut. Her expensive high-status embalming and connection to the temple imply that she may have been a member of a powerful priestly family. Scans have revealed magical amulets previously hidden beneath her bandages and beeswax figurines that were inserted inside her body. The information gleaned has allowed the museum to recreate replicas of the objects with 3D printing. The ability to observe fine detail through CT scans is such that it is possible to see images etched on the surface of the objects. It is hoped that in the future even hieroglyphs will become readable through the bandages. Also visible for the first time is the arterial plaque that may have caused her death from a heart attack.

The scans add a lot to our understanding of these individual mummies, but as yet they have not led to any earth-shattering discoveries for the field as a whole. However, as more mummies are scanned and the technology continues to progress in the coming years, we will surely begin to learn a lot more about the lives and deaths of the mummies of the Nile Valley.

Rossa Minogue is staff writer at spiked.

Ancient Lives, New Discoveries will open at the British Museum on 22 May. Buy tickets here.

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