SOURCE: Denver Museum of Nature & Science

Denver Museum of Nature & Science

October 24, 2016 15:30 ET

Advanced Technologies "Unwrap" the Mummies at the Denver Museum of Nature & Science

Advances in CT scanning and additional tests reveal new secrets held within mummies, coffins from the Museum's collection

DENVER, CO--(Marketwired - October 24, 2016) - In April, the Denver Museum of Nature & Science partnered with Children's Hospital Colorado to conduct CT scans on two female mummies and coffins displayed in the Museum's very popular "Egyptian Mummies" gallery. The mummies and coffins were purchased by a tourist in Egypt in 1906 and are on permanent loan from the Rosemount Museum in Pueblo. They were last scanned nearly 20 years ago.

In addition, other minimally to noninvasive tests were performed, including:

  • Radiocarbon dating of tiny samples from the linens, coffins and other exposed organic materials.
  • Isotope analysis of the skin of one of the mummies.
  • Core sampling of the coffins for tree ring dating and analysis.
  • Portable X-ray fluorescence for pigment identification from the coffins and to determine the composition of the amulets and other items in the wrappings.

"Although mummies have been studied since the 1800s, the science from the past 25 years has proven the most productive thanks to rapidly advancing technologies," said Michele Koons, the Museum's curator of archaeology. "While some mysteries remain, this recent round of tests has really added to our understanding of these mummies and coffins."

A New Understanding
Based on previous research, the two mummies have long been distinguished in the "Egyptian Mummies" gallery as the "Rich Mummy" and the "Poor Mummy." Also already determined: Both were females who died in their 30s, and the Rich Mummy was associated with the coffin of a man named Mes. However, new findings show the difference between the mummies likely has less to do with economic status and more to do with the points in history in which they were mummified. Egyptian mummification changed often over the 3,000 years it was practiced.

Previous scans on the Rich Mummy showed:

  • The eye sockets are filled with resin and covered by false eyes made of glass or ceramic.
  • An amulet covers the heart with other jewelry nearby, and there is a metal plate over the incision in the abdomen.
  • Linen bundles are inside her body cavity, but unknown was whether the linens contained the organs.

New radiocarbon dating indicates she was mummified between 894-825 BCE, a period that aligns with the techniques described above. The organs were removed from the body, individually wrapped and placed back in the body. The practice is thought to have emerged because canopic jars that traditionally contained the organs were being regularly looted. The new scans revealed that the bundles do contain the organs because researchers were able to identify a figurine of one of the Four Sons of Horus, each assigned to protect a specific organ. Researchers also discovered that this mummy had false hair extensions and an amulet of an ibis in her abdomen, and that the metal plate covering the incision was inscribed with the Eye of Horus.

"The detail with which we're able to examine this mummy's features was astounding, and she is a shining example of mummification techniques during this time period," said Koons.

The second mummy, the Poor Mummy, was mummified between 398-260 BCE, during the decline of mummification practices. New scans confirmed that her organs had not been removed. And although the external appearance was of greater importance than internal preservation during this time, the original condition of this mummy is unknown because an outer layer of wrappings was removed prior to entering the Museum's collections. Therefore, it cannot be concluded that she was poorer than the other mummy or if she simply received the typical techniques of her time. Tests on the hair and skin determined that her diet of desert crops -- staples were wheat and barley -- was typical for the time period and locale in which she lived. Her skin had been treated with resins and oils, which remained common during this late period of mummification. The Poor Mummy's wrappings were of a slightly lower quality than the Rich Mummy's, however, she did have some jewelry placed inside them.

New findings related to the two coffins were also compelling.

As was already known, the coffin associated with the Rich Mummy was originally constructed for a man named Mes. Edoardo Guzzon, from the Museum of Turin, recently uncovered new information about this coffin: It was discovered by Ernesto Schiaparelli, an Italian Egyptologist, in the Valley of the Queens in 1903 in the re-used tomb of Khaemwaset, a son of Ramses III. In his studies, Guzzon realized this coffin is one of five left by Schiaparelli in the Cairo Museum to give to "some American museums." The coffin radiocarbon dates between 787-556 BCE, coinciding with the hieroglyphs dating the coffin to roughly 715 BCE. Ultimately Mes's coffin ended up in Colorado with a female mummy roughly 200 years older than the coffin.

New dating confirms that the Poor Mummy was also not the original occupant of her associated coffin because she died 600 years after this coffin was constructed. The tenons and dowels from this coffin date between 909-837 BCE. However, the wood from the lid and base is much older and was likely used for some sort of architectural structure before being repurposed for the coffin. The quality of the overall construction is low but the quality of the decoration is relatively high, including the use of the revered Egyptian blue paint. This suggests the deceased's family did not expect the coffin to last long -- mainly because looting was a major problem during this period -- but used the correct decorations to ensure the deceased would pass on to the afterlife.

"It was common practice for mummies and coffins to be swapped both in ancient Egyptian times and in the more recent past," said Koons. "In the ancient past, looting for nice coffins was very common and many people are buried in much older coffins. In the late 1800s, mummies became very fashionable for tourists to collect. Attractive mummies would be placed in better looking coffins to sell. It is likely that one of these practices explains how these mummies came to rest in coffins originally built for others."

This new scientific findings will be displayed in the "Egyptian Mummies" gallery in late 2017, telling how technological advances have changed the story of these two old friends of the Museum.

Advances in Technology
When the mummies were scanned in the 1990s, it took almost two days per mummy to acquire the images. Slice thickness was 5 mm through the bodies and 1 mm through the head and neck regions. The standard practice was to print on film for interpretation, with limited 3D manipulation available. In 2016, scans occurred at 0.6 mm intervals, and it took less than 30 seconds to scan each mummy from head to toe. The 3D images were generated within minutes of acquisition, and 3D printing has become readily available.

Other tests such as radiocarbon dating and isotope analysis also help tell the story, providing an understanding of not only the mummification practices but the diet and health of the person and clues to contributing environmental factors.

"This is an incredible example of how advances in technology have furthered our knowledge of a fascinating practice and time in human history without compromising the integrity of these people and objects," said Koons.

Special thanks to Kari Hayes and Jason Weinman and the entire team at Children's Hospital for conducting the scans and offering their equipment and time; Stephen Humphries at National Jewish Health for assisting with 3D visualization; Caroline Arbuckle MacLeod (UCLA), Pearce Paul Creasman and Chris Baisan (University of Arizona) for analyzing the coffins; Bonnie Clark, Keith Miller and Farrah Taylor (University of Denver) for the pigment analysis; Peggy Whitehead and Dale Zitek (DMNS anthropology volunteers) for analysis of the linens; Andrew Doll (DMNS Zoology Department) for assistance with the isotope analysis. Updated conservation efforts were undertaken by Jude Southward and Jessica Fletcher of DMNS. The radiocarbon dating and isotope work was done at the University of California Irvine Keck lab.

NOTE: Photos, video available

About the Denver Museum of Nature & Science
The Denver Museum of Nature & Science is the Rocky Mountain Region's leading resource for informal science education. Our mission is to be catalyst and ignite the community's passion for nature and science. The Museum envisions an empowered community that loves, understands, and protects our natural world. As such, a variety of engaging exhibits, discussions and activities help Museum visitors celebrate and understand the wonders of Colorado, Earth, and the universe. The Museum is located at 2001 Colorado Blvd., Denver, CO, 80205. To learn more about the Museum, visit, or call 303-370-6000. Many of the Museum's educational programs and exhibits are made possible in part by the citizens of the seven-county metro area through the Scientific & Cultural Facilities District. Connect with the Museum on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.

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