Ancient Egyptian mummies provide an opportunity to learn more about the health, beliefs, and skills of ancient people. In the past, mummies were unwrapped and subjected to invasive dissection for research and entertainment.

Finding an ideal compromise between examining a mummy and not destroying it encouraged the use of less invasive methods. However, the overlapping of the object’s three-dimensional (3D) data on the two-dimensional (2D) X-ray film leads to data loss and less satisfactory results. Computed tomography (CT) represents a significant advancement in radiology.

Recently, scientists from Egypt used CT scans to “digitally unwrap” the roughly 2,300-year-old undisturbed mummy of a teenager with a high socioeconomic status. They found that this “Golden Boy” is an undistorted showcase of ancient Egyptian beliefs about life after death.

The mummy had protruding teeth
The mummy had protruding teeth. Arrows: the unerupted wisdom teeth. Credits: SN Saleem, SA Seddik, Mel-Halwagy

The body was equipped with 49 amulets of 21 kinds, several of which were made of gold and carefully placed on or in them. A scarab with a golden heart was inserted into the chest cavity, a golden tongue into the mouth, and a pair of two-fingered amulets next to the uncircumcised penis.

An Isis knot invoked the power of Isis to protect the body, a rectangular amulet was meant to bring balance and leveling, and a double falcon and ostrich plumes represented the duality of spiritual and material life. A golden dung beetle was found placed in the chest cavity, a copy of which was 3D printed by the scientists.

The mummy was covered in ferns and dressed in sandals, both of which had symbolic meaning. This mummy serves as a showcase for Ptolemaic-era Egyptian views on death and the afterlife.

These results provide a unique insight into mummification procedures and beliefs about the importance of funerary jewelery during the Ptolemaic period.

The mummy is digitally unpacked in four stages
The mummy digitally unpacked in four stages Credit: SN Saleem, SA Seddik, M el-Halwagy

Dr. Sahar Saleem, the study’s first author and a professor at the Faculty of Medicine at Cairo University, Egypt, said: “Here we show that the body of this mummy was elaborately decorated with 49 amulets beautifully stylized in a unique arrangement of three columns between the folds of the casings and within the mummy’s body cavity. These include the Eye of Horus, the Scarab, the Akhet Amulet of the Horizon, the Placenta, the Knot of Isis, and others. Many were made of gold, while some were made of semi-precious stones, baked clay, or faience. Their purpose was to protect the body and give it vitality in the afterlife.”

The boy’s CT scans showed he was 5 feet 8 inches (128 cm) tall, had never been circumcised, and died only of natural causes. The boy was between the ages of 14 and 15, the authors estimated based on the degree of bone fusion and the wisdom teeth that had not erupted. He had healthy teeth with no signs of periodontal disease, tooth loss or cavities.

The mummy “Golden Boy” was discovered in 1916 in a cemetery in Nag el-Hassay, in southern Egypt. The cemetery was in use between about 332 and 30 BCE. Until this research, it had been preserved in the basement of the Egyptian Museum without study.

The mummy's face
a. The mummy’s face on CT scans. b. Amulets were placed on or inside the mummy in three columns. CREDIT SN Saleem, SA Seddik, Mel-Halwagy

The mummy was placed in two coffins: an inner wooden sarcophagus and an outer coffin with a Greek inscription. On the inside, he was dressed in a pair of sandals, a breastplate covering the front of his torso, and a gold-trimmed head mask. Apart from the heart, the viscera had been removed through an incision, while the brain had been removed through the nose and replaced with resin.

Dr Saleem said: “The sandals were probably meant to make the boy walk out of the coffin. According to the ritual Book of the Dead of the ancient Egyptians, the deceased had to wear white sandals to be pious and clean before reciting his verses.”

Ferns were hurled around the outer surface of the mummy. The ancient Egyptians were fascinated by plants and flowers and believed they had sacred and symbolic effects. At the funeral, bouquets of plants and flowers were placed next to the deceased: this happened, for example, with the mummies of the kings of the New Kingdom Ahmose, Amenhotep I and Ramses the Great. Plants were also offered to the deceased each time they visited the dead during celebrations.”

“The heart scarab is mentioned in chapter 30 of the Book of the Dead: it was important in the afterlife during the judging of the deceased and the weighing of the heart against the feather of the goddess Maat. The heart scarab silenced the heart on the Day of Judgment so as not to testify against the deceased. It was placed in the trunk cavity during mummification to replace the heart if the body was deprived of this organ.

The management of the Egyptian Museum decided to move the mummy to the main exhibition hall under the name “Golden Boy” in light of these fascinating finds. To get as close as possible to the glory of ancient Egyptian civilization, visitors can view the mummy in its new location alongside CT scans and a 3D-printed version of the heart scarab amulet.

Magazine reference:

  1. Sahar Saleem, Subah Abd el-Razek Seddik and Mahmoud el-Halwagy. Scanning and three-dimensional printing using computed tomography of the “Golden Boy” mummy. Front side. Med., 24 Jan. 2023. DOI: 10.3389/fmed.2022.1028377