Secrets of the royal mummies

Zahi Hawass , Tuesday 11 Jan 2022

The use of new technology as part of the Egyptian Royal Mummy Project is revealing the secrets of the ancient Egyptian royal mummies, writes Zahi Hawass

Screenshots of the x-rays carried out on the mummy
Screenshots of the x-rays carried out on the mummy

The Egyptian Royal Mummy Project has revealed many important secrets of the ancient Egyptian royal mummies. We have been working on this project since 2005 and have made many major discoveries using advanced X-ray technology, CT (computer tomography) scanning, and advanced computer software to digitally unwrap the mummies using a safe and non-invasive method without the need to touch them.

A study of this sort was carried out on the mummy of Amenhotep I that revealed for the first time the face of the pharaoh, his age, health condition, and many secrets about his mummy’s unique mummification and reburial. The study was done by Sahar Salim, a radiologist and professor at the Faculty of Medicine at Cairo University, and the author of this article.

Thanks to the Egyptian Royal Mummy Project, Salim has made many important discoveries about the royal mummies. The study of the mummy of Amenhotep I, published in the well-known medical journal Frontiers in Medicine, announced some of these discoveries in December last year, and they were subsequently reported worldwide.

However, before describing the mummy of Amenhotep I in more detail, it is important to explain the recent major discoveries concerning the mummy of Sequenenre Taa II, the circumstances of whose death were revealed by CT scan, and the mummy known as “the screaming woman.” Salim is now a great scholar in this field, and no other radiologist has had the opportunity to work on the royal mummies in this way.

The question of why the work is important can be answered by reminding ourselves of the story of their discovery. The royal mummies were found in two caches. The first one was at Deir Al-Bahari, discovered in 1881, and the other cache was inside the tomb of Amenhotep II (KV 35). When the mummy of Ramses II arrived in the Egyptian Museum in Cairo, the then ruler of Egypt, the khedive Ismail, decided to go to see it. The authorities at the museum put the mummy in a gallery and removed most of the linen surrounding it. Today, we do not need to do this because we can safely examine the mummy using a non-invasive method.

Before I reveal the secrets of the three mummies investigated using the new technology, I would also like to tell you a story of something that happened to me when I was a young archaeologist. The head of Egypt’s Antiquities Department at the time asked me to take princess Margaret, sister of the queen of England, to visit the Cairo Museum. While I was taking her on a tour, she saw the mummy of Ramses II exhibited in the hall of the museum. I saw her cover her eyes and run away. I asked her why she had done so, and she said that “I cannot stand looking at a human being like that.”

When I became head of antiquities in Egypt, this reaction led me to stop showing the mummies off for entertainment as they had been shown previously. I decided that all the royal mummies should be shown for educational purposes only and not just for a thrill. As a result, we designed the exhibition such that the mummies were shown as if they were inside their tombs with information on each monarch and his mummy beside the coffin. We also included information from CT scans of the mummies.

Let us return to the stories of the mummies. The pharaoh Sequenenre Taa II ruled southern Egypt during the Second Intermediate Period and the occupation of the country by the Hyksos, a foreign dynasty that seized northern Egypt for about a century (1650-1550 BCE). The mummy of Sequenenre was uncovered in 1881 in the Deir al-Bahri cache mentioned above, and it was examined in 1881 and again in the 1960s by X-ray. The two studies revealed serious head injuries that very likely resulted in the king’s death. Several theories were presented concerning the circumstances surrounding his demise, including a conspiracy in the palace, death on the battlefield, and even execution by the Hyksos king himself.

The new study using modern CT scanning undertaken by the author and Salim revealed a great deal of new information about the mummy of Sequenenre Taa II. The wounds to the king’s head were compared with those caused by various Hyksos weapons, including an axe, a spear, and several daggers stored in the Egyptian Museum in Cairo. The results indicated that Sequenenre was killed by multiple blows to the head from different weapons at different angles and therefore likely by multiple attackers.