Posts Tagged ‘mummies’

The following notes are comments on the following montage of photographs, which comprises a small selection of images and should be viewed 1 – 12 from left to right and going down the three columns from top to bottom.

Images: copyright J. Filer, montage design: R. Barritt


Science Week is a yearly event, usually held around March, when various institutions who are interested in developing educational opportunities offer talks and demonstrations promoting aspects of science.  On many occasions I am asked to present talks with a scientific theme concerning ancient Egypt.  So it will come as no surprise to those who know me that I am keen to present information about the use of CT scanning in the scientific investigation of ancient Egyptian mummies.

Image 1:

One of the many venues who promote the dissemination of scientific knowledge about mummies is, of course, the British Museum  – and I have often presented talks there, as you can see in this photograph.

The museum is keen to learn more about the many Egyptian mummies in their keeping and, not being allowed to unwrap these artifacts, many of the mummies are examined with the aid of hospital CT scanners.  Computed Tomography (CT) or Computed Axial Tomography (CAT)  scanners allow us to look inside mummies without resorting to pulling them apart – the technique is non-invasive and non-destructive (see note 1). Essentially, in this technique a mummy is placed on a movable table which allows  particular sections of the body to be examined in detail as the mummy is moved in and out of the scanner.  A computer, as the name implies, is used to record information detected on disks  (A photograph of the technique can be seen in my first blog article on the mummy of Artemidorus.

All the images in this particular montage are focused on skulls.

Image 2:

Here we are looking inside the skull inside the mummy of a woman named Hermione (grammatike) who, it is suggested, lived and died in Egypt at about AD 40-50 (see note 2).  The mummy is now held in Girton College, Cambridge.  This image demonstrates that the scanner can not only penetrate the often great volume of linen wrapping the body but can also look inside cavities – here the skull cavity.  All achieved without harming or disturbing the precious mummy.  Here, all the X-ray images of her skull have been put together to allow the computer to generate a 3D model.

For this particular mummy, Hermione, we can see that her skull cavity is empty because the brain has been removed by the ancient embalmers who prepared the body.  The brain would be removed by inserting a long metal hook up the nose and, following the breaking of the ethmoid bones, entry is effected into the skull cavity.  Then the brain was pulled out – it was usually thrown away as the ancient Egyptian did not place the same value on the human brain as we do nowadays.  Close scrutiny of the inner table of Hermione’s skull case shows scratch marks where the hook has marked the bone as the brain was scraped out.

Image 3:

This title reminds us that, in effect, CT scanning is really an X-ray technique, albeit a rather superior one.  Thus, the information mentioned above as being recorded on disks can also be printed out on X-ray type film if  a hard copy is needed.

Image 4:

This is the same skull as in image 2 but in this view we are looking at the external view of Hermione’s skull.  We can see the bone is in excellent condition and, very usefully, this view aids the determination of the lady’s age at death.  This lateral 3D view shows us her teeth and, more importantly, her molar teeth (shown here at the right side of her mouth).  The third molar teeth (popularly termed  wisdom teeth) are the last teeth to erupt into the jaw.  A  person’s age can be indicated by the stage of development of the dentition.  Thus, we see Hermione’s third molar shown is only partially descended suggesting her age at death was before 21 years (if compared with modern dental data).

Image 5:

This title reminds us of mummification techniques.  Often, but not always, the ancient Egyptian embalmers would put some form of packing in the brain cavity following the removal of the brain – this packing was usually  linen or resin.  Sometimes mud and linen was packed into the mummy’s mouth.

Image 6:

Here is an example of brain case packing as outlined in note 5.  Here we can see inside a mummy’s head (through CT scanning).  The head is that of a mature male and clearly after his brain was removed, in ancient times, the embalmers have pushed strips of linen up the nose and into the brain cavity.  Mud was then packed into the nostrils and mouth.  Note: the image here is shown upside down to aid  orientation – hence the nose is facing the lower part of the X-ray.

Image 7:

Here we return to Hermione.  This mummy is well-known because she is  what is termed in Egyptology ‘a portrait mummy’.  During the Roman control of ancient Egypt there were significant differences in the preparation of mummies: often ‘new’ Roman ideas were incorporated into traditional Egyptian funerary  practices.  Thus, some mummies of this period incorporated a painted portrait of the deceased in the mummy wrappings.  We often wonder if these portraits were accurate.  Here was an opportunity to use a digitised version of Hermione’s portrait and then apply it to a 3D model of her skull (as viewed within the wrappings).  Certainly, the skull and facial shape displayed in the portrait matches the actual biological information obtained from the bony skull.  However, we can know if her hair and eyes were really brown, as the portrait suggests, but it is likely to be true!

Image 8:

This is another view of the mummy portrait applied to a 3D model – the model was milled by the computer following the measurements detected during the CT examination of Hermione’s mummy.

Image 9:

Again, we are reminded of the interesting 3D possibilities offered by computer examination.  Although all the images in this montage concentrate on skulls this title reminds us that the 3D technique can be  applied to any part of a computer examined skeleton.

Image 10:

Here is the milled model, in screen form, before the application of the digitised mummy portrait.  After measuring all aspects of the skull the computer is then instructed to reproduce what it has detected on a block of material (somewhat similar to polystyrene).  There is no colour at this point as the CT scanner cannot tell us what colours are within the mummy package (eg. hair or skin colour for example).

Image 11:

This is a three-quarter view of Hermione’s skull in 3D – it is another view of that seen in image 4.  From this we can see that the bone is in excellent condition and the teeth remarkably so.  Many researchers find that many ancient Egyptians had many teeth problems: missing teeth, worn down teeth, gum disease etc) but here Hermione displays an excellent dentition.

Image 12:

Finally, me again!  Here I am outlining the features of the 3D model also shown in image 10.  The model (based on measurements of the actual skull) indicate that Hermione had an oval face – very elegant in the modern day view.

These notes, together with the montage, show the value and potential of modern technology in the examination of ancient human (and animal remains) and in these cases the examination of a male mummy head and the full mummy of the famous Hermione.


1.  For further information about how CT scanning and X-ray techniques benefit the scientific study of mummies see:

Joyce Filer, Disease, British Museum Press, 1995, particularly pp. 45-51.

Joyce M. Filer, ‘If the Face Fits….. A Comparison of Mummies and their Accompanying Portraits Using Computerised Axial Tomography‘ in M.L. Bierbrier (ed), Portraits and Masks. Burial Customs in Roman Egypt, British Museum Press, 1997: pp. 121- 126 & plates 44-46.

Joyce M Filer, ‘Ancient Bodies, but modern techniques: the utilisation of CT scanning in the study of ancient Egyptian mummies’, in R. Arnott (ed) The Archaeology of Medicine, Archaeopress BAR International Series 1046, 2002: pp. 33-40

2. But see: Ancient Faces. Mummy Portraits from Roman Egypt, British Museum Press, 1997, pp. 37-39 for discussion of the dating of this mummy (and photographs of Hermione’s mummy).

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