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X-rays reveal the intricate layers of Egyptian mummies

Mummies on display at the British Museum have been painstakingly X-rayed in high definition to reveal the layers beneath the sarcophagus.

British Museum Trust

Whether or not Egypt-mad Victorians did throw parties to unwrap scavenged mummies, the fascination with such a practise is all too easy to imagine. The preserved corpses of that ancient culture have long held a beloved place in monster mythos: desiccated skeletons trailing tattered bandages emerging from sumptuous sarcophagi.

They have also revealed, from an anthropological perspective, a great deal about ancient Egyptian burial customs -- which in turn can reveal a great deal about a culture's beliefs -- but very few people have been able to see each layer of a mummy.

A new exhibition at the British Museum aims to unveil the mystery. Holovis, the company working with the museum, used high-definition CT scans, which perform a scan every 0.6mm. In this way, the museum has not only been able to reconstruct the mummies in 3D using volume graphics software, revealing the mummies layer-by-layer without destroying them, but also reveal key details about their lives.

The eight mummies, which span a period of some 4,000 years between the Predynastic period and the Christian era, come from sites in Egypt and Sudan. The scan of an adult male from Thebes mummified circa 600 B.C. reveals that his brain and internal organs had been removed, and his lower jaw has two dental abscesses.

A high-ranking priest's daughter and temple singer named Tayesmutengebtiu ("Tamut") has also had details of her life revealed by the scan. Buried in the most opulent style of her day, circa 900 B.C., her body was buried with strategically placed ritual amulets, which could also be 3D printed, thanks to the scans. Also revealed was an illness: atherosclerosis, a thickening of the arterial wall -- in Tamut's case, in her legs.

"This new technology is truly ground-breaking, allowing us to reconstruct and understand the lives of these eight very different individuals," said British Museum director Neil MacGregor. "This is a project which has only been made possible through recent technological advances and I am delighted that the Museum is at the forefront of this kind of research and presentation."

The exhibition, which is being sponsored by Swiss banking group Julius Baer and Samsung, will be on display at the British Museum in London until 30 November. If you can't get to the museum but are fascinated, you can also learn more about the mummies in a book, available through the British Museum website.