Scientists ‘Virtually Unwrap’ Exceptional 3,500-Year-Old Mummy of Amenhotep I With CT Scans, Revealing Ancient Mystery

TIMEJanuary 4, 2022

A wrapped mummy of novel quality and exceptional appearance, whose burial rites were preserved from ages ago, has now been unwrapped—not by hand but virtually, using cutting-edge CT scans and 3D modeling software—revealing mysteries of the ancient kings of Egypt.

In 1902, among the royal mummies moved to the Egyptian Museum in Cairo was Amenhotep I, who reigned from 1525 to 1504 B.C. during the 18th Dynasty, whose remains were found in Luxor tomb Deir el-Bahari Royal Cache—where New Kingdom royalty were placed, so as to protect them from tomb robbers, some 3,000 years ago.

One of the few mummies found fully wrapped in modern times, Amenhotep I was marveled upon by then director of antiquities in Egypt Gaston Maspero. Having been desecrated by tomb raiders long ago, the mummy was reburied by priests of the 21st Dynasty. The beautiful reburial features garlands of yellow, red, and blue flowers, as well as an intact mask of cartonnage and painted wood with obsidian eyes and a cobra adorning the forehead. When the coffin of Amenhotep I was opened, a preserved wasp, possibly attracted by the smell of garlands and trapped, was also found inside. Preserving the novelty of this ritual, Maspero left Amenhotep I undisturbed.

Yet, recent technological advances have made possible a virtual “unwrapping” of the mummy, revealing more of the story hidden within.

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The mummy of Amenhotep I with a mask of painted wood and cartonnage. (Courtesy of Sahar N. Saleem & Zahi Hawass)

A specialized truck-mounted CT unit was brought to the garden of the Egyptian Museum where the remains of Amenhotep I were examined in exquisite detail, layer by layer, with sophisticated X-ray scanners. Using the data, cutting-edge imaging software reconstructed a 3D representation, with objects and materials identified based on their density, allowing researchers to dissect with digital “scalpels” and virtually “unwrap” the mummy. It would, noninvasively, reveal the manner in which Amenhotep I was dressed, damaged by tomb raiders, and later restored.

The King Within the Mummy 

Beneath transversely wrapped linen sheets spiraling down the body from head to feet, the work of embalmers became apparent. A nine-centimeter vertical incision made at Amenhotep I’s lower left flank indicated evisceration (removal of organs); the lower abdominal cavity was filled with resin-treated linen. The heart was not taken out, however, nor the brain which was discovered intact, resting at the back of the skull.

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Three-dimensional CT image of the head of the wrapped mummy of Amenhotep I. (Courtesy of Sahar N. Saleem & Zahi Hawass)
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The preserved desiccated brain rests at the back of the skull. (Courtesy of Sahar N. Saleem & Zahi Hawass)
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Three-dimensional CT image of the digitally unwrapped face of the mummy Amenhotep I. (Courtesy of Sahar N. Saleem & Zahi Hawass)

The mummy of Amenhotep I was described as having an oval face with sunken eyes and collapsed cheeks. His nose is small, narrow, and flattened, while his teeth mildly protrude. His ears are small with a small piercing in the left lobule. Notably, a few coiled locks of hair are seen on the back and sides of the head.

Previous estimates as to Amenhotep I’s age based on X-ray examinations, first in 1932, found him to be 40 to 50 years old, and later, from teeth analysis in 1967, placed his age at 25. Recent CT scans, however, looked at the symphysis pubis (a bone in the lower pelvis which smooths with age) and placed the age of his death to be 35.

Protective Amulets and the Spells of the Priests

Thirty amulets/jewelry pieces were also found. Metal, quartz, stone, and fired clay amulets of various shapes and designs were wrapped with the mummy in different locations, with one over the heart and two placed inside the abnormal cavity. The embalmers would have uttered spells and wrapped these as protection for the deceased. Other items include a girdle of 34 gold beads set on the lower back of the mummy, pins of bone or ivory, and metallic nails used to fasten wrappings and limbs in position.

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The right forearm is flexed at the elbow and crosses the lower abdomen transversely. The dislocated left arm and forearm are placed extended along the left side of the body. (Courtesy of Sahar N. Saleem & Zahi Hawass)
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Two fingers missing from the left hand are placed inside the body cavity (indicated by the long black arrow). (Courtesy of Sahar N. Saleem & Zahi Hawass)
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The right foot of the mummy of Amenhotep I with nails likely placed to fix the position of the wood plaque to the surrounding wrappings. (Courtesy of Sahar N. Saleem & Zahi Hawass)

Tomb Raiders, Reburial, and Legacy 

Evidence of tomb robbers was also present. The left arm was disarticulated and then re-wrapped extended alongside the mummy’s body. The mummy’s right arm, however, is bent at the elbow with the forearm overlapping the abdomen, indicating that both arms were probably once crossed likewise. Two fingers of the left hand were also dismembered, probably by tomb robbers, and were located inside a large defect of the abdominal cavity wall. More remarkably, the mummy’s neck had been severed, the head decapitated, and was reattached using a resin-treated linen band with an amulet placed underneath.

While the reburial project of the 21st Dynasty priests has been accused of being meant for the removal and reuse of royal burial equipment for the Third Intermediate Period Kings, the re-mummification of Amenhotep I is, nevertheless, remarkable. The virtual unwrapping has preserved this unique history while providing insights into the reburial methods and honors that 21st Dynasty priests once held for their ancestral royalty.

Amenhotep I was the second king of the 18th Dynasty to ascend to the throne after the death of his father, Ahmose I. The name Amenhotep means “Amun is satisfied.” During his reign, he protected the territories of Egypt, led a campaign to Kush, and an expedition to Libya. His tenure was a peaceful one that enabled him to focus on administrative organization and the building of temples such as that of Amun at Karnak and one in Nubia at Sai.

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Michael Wing
Editor and Writer
Michael Wing is a writer and editor based in Calgary, Canada, where he was born and educated in the arts. He writes mainly on culture, human interest, and trending news.