Roman-era Egyptian child mummy scanned with laser-like precision

Highly focused X-ray beams targeted small objects inside the mummy case.

X-ray diffraction showed the mummy’s unerupted adult teeth and a mass of resin inside the skull.
(Image: © Copyright Stuart R. Stock)

An Egyptian mummy that was decorated with a woman’s portrait contained a surprise — the body of a child who was only 5 years old when she died. Now, scientists have learned more about the mysterious girl and her burial, thanks to high-resolution scans and X-ray “microbeams” that targeted very small regions in the intact artifact.

Computed X-ray tomography (CT) scans of the mummy’s teeth and femur confirmed the girl’s age, though they showed no signs of trauma in her bones that could suggest the cause of her death.

Scans performed on the mummy about two decades ago were low contrast, and many details were hard to see. For the new analysis, researchers conducted new CT scans to visualize the mummy’s structure in its entirety. They then focused on specific regions using X-ray diffraction, in which a tightly concentrated beam of X-rays bounces off the atoms in crystalline structures; variations in the diffraction patterns reveal what type of material the object is made of.

This is the first time that X-ray diffraction has been used on an intact mummy, said lead study author Stuart Stock, a research professor of cell and developmental biology in the Feinberg School of Medicine at Northwestern University in Chicago.

The mummy, known as “Hawara Portrait Mummy No. 4,” is in the collection of Northwestern University’s Block Museum of Art. It was excavated between 1910 and 1911 from the ancient Egyptian site of Hawara, and it dates to around the first century A.D., when Egypt was under Roman rule.

Targeted, high-intensity X-rays also revealed a mysterious object that had been placed on the child’s abdomen, scientists reported in a new study.

“During the Roman era in Egypt, they started making mummies with portraits attached to the front surface,” Stock told Live Science. “Many thousands were made, but most of the portraits have been removed from the mummies we have — maybe only 100 to 150 still have the portrait attached to the mummy,” he said.

Though the portrait on Mummy No. 4 showed an adult woman, the small size of the mummy hinted otherwise — and the scans confirmed that the mummy was a child, still so young that none of her permanent teeth had emerged. Her body measured 37 inches (937 millimeters) from the top of her skull to the soles of her feet, and the wrappings added another 2 inches (50 mm), according to the study.

The researchers also detected 36 needle-like structures in the case — 11 around the head and neck, 20 near the feet and five by the torso. X-ray diffraction determined that these were modern metal wires or pins that may have been added to stabilize the artifact sometime during the last century.

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