Mummies full of surprises


In 2015, the Saint-Luc University Hospital Radiology and Medical Imaging Department, in collaboration with a UCL research team, scanned 25 mummies belonging to the Cinquantenaire Museum, revealing some of their secrets. 

For a long time the only way to see what was inside a mummy was to unwrap it and perform an autopsy. The problem was there was no going back: the mummy, or what was left of it, was lost. ‘Fortunately, that time is past’, rejoices Caroline Tilleux, an Egyptologist and UCL researcher in the Ancient Egypt Research Group. ‘Today, studying mummies is much less invasive. Now, to see how a mummy was made, Egyptologists turn increasingly to medical imaging techniques.’

The approach isn’t new. All the way back in 1897, two years after X-rays were discovered, the first X-ray images of mummies were taken. In 1977, in Boston (US), the first scanners were created. In Belgium, a few radiology campaigns took place1 but none concerning as large a sampling as this UCL effort. In all, 15 animal mummies and 10 human mummies were scanned at Saint-Luc University Hospital in September and October 2015.

Mummification: instruction manual

To understand the value of using medical imaging to study mummies, one must first recall how they were ‘made’. ‘Techniques could have varied through the centuries and according to region,’ Prof. Tilleux explains, ‘but the stages of mummification were more or less the same.’ They were, in order:

  1. Body grooming: the body was washed and shaved and given a pedicure and manicure.
  2. Organ removal: the brain was removed through the nose or out of the back of the head (excerebration). Lungs, liver, spleen and intestines were also removed. But the heart, which Egyptians believed was the seat of thought, was left in place. 
  3. Desiccation: natron was applied all over the body for 40 days to dry it out.
  4. Reshaping: to soften the ‘leather’ of the dried skin, it was treated with coatings, ointments and perfumes. Mouth, thorax and/or subcutaneous tissues were stuffed to prevent collapse. The objective was to give the body the most human form possible for living in the afterlife.
  5. ‘Bandaging’: the body was covered by a shroud and wound in layers of cloth between which were slipped jewellery, pins and amulets.

In accordance with the rules of the art, it took 70 days to mummify a corpse. It was then placed in a coffin and stored in a necropolis.

Advantages of scanning

As part of her doctoral thesis on mummies, Prof. Tilleux contacted Saint-Luc in the spring of 2015 to ask whether it would be possible to scan mummies and coffins belonging to the Cinquantenaire Museum. Prof. Emmanuel Coche, Head of the Medical Imaging Department, and Prof. Étienne Danse, Head of Radiology, eagerly accepted.

A few months later, 25 mummies were scanned and almost 60,000 images taken. The advantage of CT scanning over X-rays? By superimposing images, computers can create three-dimensional images and even remove ‘layers’ to examine the naked mummy, without ever touching it.

What scanners revealed

The images revealed punctures and incisions executed during the first stages of embalming. Traces of resin (an antiseptic) and unidentified substances in skulls and other cavities were also detected. ‘This wealth of information taught us a lot about mummification techniques and thus about the epoch, geographic area and, above all, social status of the deceased’, Prof. Tilleux says. ‘Indeed, some “lower-end” techniques were used for individuals of humble background. Egyptian society’s wealthiest, however, enjoyed the finest techniques and materials.’

A few surprises

Scanning also revealed surprises:

  • One mummy presumed to be female is in fact male.
  • Some animal sarcophagi (ibis, crocodiles, cats, etc.) contain bones and even the animal mummy itself, which isn’t always the case.
  • Underneath the peaceful exterior, a child mummy revealed a body in four pieces mended together with wooden and metal rods. Had the body been embalmed too late after death? Had it already decomposed? Do the metal rods reflect ancient or modern restoration? It’s a mystery!

Candice Leblanc

(1) In 2005, three mummies were scanned in Liège.

A Glance at Caroline Tilleux's bio

2012 Master’s Degree in History of Art and Archaeology, UCL
2013 Certificate of Achievement, palaeoanthropology course, ULB
Since 2014 Doctoral thesis in Egyptology, Louvain Orientalist Institute, UCL, within the Ancient Egypt Research Group
2015 Participation in CROMIOSS project
2015 Scientific Collaborator, Sarcophagi (exhibition), Royal Museums of Art and History (Brussels)
2016 Researcher, Royal Museums of Art and History (Brussels)

Published on December 21, 2016