Meet Nestawedjat, a married woman who lived in the ancient Egyptian city of Thebes. She was about five feet tall and died in her late 30s or 40s, around 2,700 years ago. After her death, the bones of her nose were broken so as to access the inside of her skull with a hooked instrument, and remove her brain. Her internal organs—except for her heart, which was believed to be the center of intellect and memory—were also taken out, and put inside packages that were nestled between her legs. Her mouth, ribcage, and abdomen were filled with packing materials, and spherical bundles of cloth were lodged inside her eye sockets, on top of which were placed artificial eyes made of stone or glass. Amulets were positioned atop her throat. Her entire body was covered in a thick layer of resin, wrapped in linen bandages, and buried inside three nesting coffins.
Many of these details recently surfaced thanks to the mummy’s brief passage through a Dual Energy CT scanner at Royal Brompton Hospital in London (outside of regular patient hours). In recent years, around 25 mummies from the British Museum have been scanned, six of which were chosen to be featured in the traveling exhibition Egyptian Mummies: Exploring Ancient Lives, which premieres at Sydney’s Powerhouse Museum this week. Alongside the decorated coffins of six individuals from ancient Egypt—two “ladies of the house,” a temple singer, a priest, a teenager, and a young child—the exhibition shows us what our eyes cannot see: incredibly detailed, layer-by-layer visualizations of the remains that lay inside.
Lucky for Nestawedjat, shortly after her arrival in Europe in 1851, the British Museum denied a local surgeon’s request for permission to unwrap the mummy. At the time, public unwrappings were staged in front of large audiences, and were often more about sensationalism than advancing our knowledge of mummification. Ethically speaking, we’ve come a long way since then, but our desire to see inside—and better understand ancient Egyptian society—persists. Starting in the 1980s, researchers began using non-invasive X-ray imaging techniques, which offered significant insight while leaving mummies untouched. Today’s latest CT scanners, which circulate two X-ray energy sources of different wavelengths around the body, capture images in unprecedented detail. Thanks to engineering software, the data can be used to create 3D models.
“We wanted to take visitors as close to the truth as science allows us to get,” explains Daniel Antoine, the British Museum’s Curator of Physical Anthropology. He and his team have been working nonstop for over a year to prepare the 3D visualizations for the exhibition. “The CT scan itself lasts 30 seconds, but it takes thousands of hours to segment the layers, to identify where the skin ends and textile begins. It was a labor of love.”
While these new technologies are groundbreaking for the field, Antoine says he didn’t want the exhibition to be “all about the science.” Science, in this case, is meant to be a vehicle that allows us to have a more immediate, instinctual connection with these ancient individuals: “We wanted to remind the viewer that these are people who once lived—that’s why we put ‘ancient lives’ in the title,” the curator tells us.
Faced with the precise contours of these remarkably well preserved bodies, it’s impossible not to feel a connection—and the data gleaned from the scans further sharpens the outlines of each personal story. We learn, for example, that a woman who lived around 900 BC, named Tayesmutengebtiu (or Tamut for short), suffered not from some obscure ancient illness, but from the biggest killer in the developed world today: cardiovascular disease. We discover that she and a female temple singer from Thebes had very short natural hair, possibly indicating that they were accustomed to wearing wigs. And overall, we witness first-hand the great care with which the bodies were prepared, and how well ancient Egyptians understood human anatomy.
In addition to helping us visualize ancient life, scanning will provide insight into how the mummies are faring today: “We can CT scan the same mummy over several decades, and monitor if there are any changes occurring on the inside.” Routine scans will especially be useful to track if a mummy’s travels have any impact: After this exhibition in Sydney, Nestawedjat, Tamut, and the four other mummies are being sent to the Science Museum in Hong Kong, before moving on to other venues in the Asia-Pacific region.