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Scientists "unwrap" the 3,000 year-old mummy of King Amenhotep I

King Amenhotep I was the second pharaoh of Egypt’s 18th dynasty and is thought to have ruled between 1525 and 1504 BCE. His mummy was discovered in 1881 at the archeological site known as Deir el Bahari in southern Egypt. Unlike most mummies discovered in the 18th and 19th centuries, however, the mummy of King Amenhotep I was never unwrapped. 

This particular mummy has been left undisturbed because of its perfect wrapping, its beautiful decoration with flower garlands, and its exquisite, lifelike facemask that is inset with colorful stones. It is the only royal mummy that has not been unwrapped and examined by modern Egyptologists. 

But now,  scientists from Egypt have used three-dimensional CT (computed tomography) scans to digitally unwrap the mummy – without disturbing it or destroying any of its intricate structure. 

Historical records, written in hieroglyphics, reveal that Amenhotep I’s mummy was opened in the 11th century BCE, some four centuries after he was buried. It is thought that, at this time, priests from the 21st dynasty lovingly restored and reburied royal mummies from more ancient dynasties, perhaps to repair the damage done by grave robbers or because they deemed the burial sites to be insecure. 

The priests apparently chose secret new locations for the mummies of numerous kings and nobles to protect them from grave robbers. Since his reburial in the 11th century BCE, Amenhotep I has remained intact inside his wrappings. To this day, the location of his own original tomb is unknown. 

“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,” said study first author Dr. Sahar Saleem, professor of radiology at the Faculty of Medicine at Cairo University and the radiologist of the Egyptian Mummy Project.

“By digitally unwrapping 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,” said Professor Saleem.

“We show that Amenhotep I was approximately 35 years old when he died. He was approximately 169cm tall, circumcized, 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.”

“We couldn’t find any wounds or disfigurement due to disease to justify the cause of death, except numerous mutilations post mortem, presumably by grave robbers after his first burial. His entrails had been removed by the first mummifiers, but not his brain or heart.”

Not very much is known about the reign of Amenhotep. He was the son of the first ruler of the 18th dynasty, King Ahmose I, and his wife Ahmose-Nefertari. During his rule, he conducted military excursions into Nubia (modern Sudan) and extended Egypt’s territory southwards. He also ordered many temples and other religious buildings to be constructed. 

Amenhotep is said to have ruled for 21 years and during this time Egypt was prosperous and safe. After his death, he and his mother were both worshipped as gods.

At the start of the CT imaging examination of Amenhotep I’s mummy, Saleem and her co-author Egyptologist Dr. Zahi Hawass, speculated that the main intention of the restorers from the 11th century was to reuse royal burial equipment for later pharaohs. However, their findings disproved this theory. 

“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,” said Professor Saleem.

Hawass and Saleem studied more than 40 royal mummies of the New Kingdom, under the auspices of the Egyptian Antiquity Ministry Project that was launched in 2005. Twenty-two royal mummies, including that of Amenhotep I, were transferred to a new museum in Cairo, in April 2021. The facemask of the mummy of Amenhotep I was the icon of the spectacular ‘Royal Golden Mummy Parade’ on March 3rd, 2021, in Cairo.

“We show that CT imaging can be profitably used in anthropological and archeological studies on mummies, including those from other civilizations, for example Peru,” concluded Saleem and Hawass.

The study is published in the journal Frontiers in Medicine.

Image Credit: S. Saleem and Z. Hawass

By Alison Bosman, Staff Writer

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