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Mummy of beloved pharaoh digitally 'unwrapped' after 3,000 years

The tomb of Amenhotep I has remained untouched since the 11th century B.C.

Face mask of the never-before-unwrapped mummy of pharaoh Amenhotep I.
S. Saleem and Z. Hawass

I don't know about you, but the moment I get a mysterious container -- even a mundane Amazon box -- I feel an intense urge to open it. Archaeologists take that inherently human curiosity to places with much higher stakes. They deal with centuries-old tombs hiding ancient secrets frozen in time.

Scientists have unwrapped nearly every mummy discovered thus far, finding remarkable evidence of things like traditional burial practices and unique facial features. But for three millennia, one Egyptian pharaoh's remains, discovered in 1881, have been left untouched for fear of tampering with their stunning condition. That ruler was Amenhotep I. 

Thanks to the age of computing, though, the royal mummy has finally been unveiled. 

A team of researchers digitally exhumed Amenhotep I's body using computing tomography imaging, a sort of X-ray imaging process. It was an astonishing success. They published a study on their endeavor Tuesday in the journal Frontiers in Medicine. 


The pharaoh's mummy, showing his shrunken skull and skeleton within the bandages.

S. Saleem and Z. Nuwass

Similar techniques have been used to uncover what's beneath the surface of other mummies, such as these animal mummies and sarcophaguses on display at the British Museum. In 2016, scientists even completed radar scanning -- also an X-ray-like procedure -- of King Tutankhamun's tomb in Egypt's Valley of the Kings. That earned us a peek into possible hidden passageways within the famous royal's resting place.

For Amenhotep I's fragile burial site, the noninvasive method was particularly useful, given scientists' worries about disturbing the mummy. 

"We show that CT imaging can be profitably used in anthropological and archeological studies on mummies, including those from other civilizations, for example Peru," Sahar Saleem, a radiologist from the faculty of medicine at Cairo University and first author of the study, said in a statement. 

The legend of Amenhotep I

After the death of Amenhotep I, his subjects remembered him as godly. During his reign, from 1526 to 1506 B.C., historians say Egypt was both peaceful and prosperous. The beloved royal was responsible for several military expeditions, such as the conquest of Libya that earned Egypt a larger kingdom, and kept up with the times when it came to building upon his land.

But despite what we do know, Amenhotep I's rule is considered poorly documented. For years, the king's mummy remained under wraps for a simple reason: It was just too beautifully preserved to touch. He was decorated with intricate garlands and a face mask adorned with colorful, special stones. No one wanted to risk ruining the entombed artistry, the team says.

So the crew of scientists found a way to "unwrap" Amenhotep I's exquisitely maintained mummy without damaging the delicate remains. 

"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," Saleem said.


The pharaoh's skull, including his teeth in good condition.

S. Saleem and Z. Hawass

Unveiling a pharaoh's past

They found that the Egyptian royal was approximately 35 years old when he died, stood just over 5 feet, 5 inches (169 centimeters) tall, was "circumsized and had good teeth," according to Saleem. "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."

In addition to unearthing facial features, the team noticed a lack of wounds or disfigurement from disease, removing illness as a possible cause of the king's death. They did, however, find "numerous mutilations post mortem," according to Saleem, "presumably by grave robbers after his first burial. His entrails had been removed by the first mummifiers, but not his brain or heart."

Interestingly, since the first mummifiers did what they could to preserve Amenhotep's remains, Saleem says the mummy had been reburied twice, centuries after the pharoah's death, by high priests of Amun, named for the Egyptian god Amun. Amenhotep means "Amun is satisfied." 

Initially, she and her team believed the reburial occurred because the priests wished to reuse equipment enclosed in the tomb for later pharaohs' royal burials. 

Instead, Saleem explains she found "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."

As it appears, the pharaoh's legendary reputation lived on among Egyptians for many, many eras to come.