Golden boy’s Egyptian mummy is ‘digitally unwrapped’ as scans reveal ancient secrets

CAIRO — Known as Egypt’s ‘golden boy’, the mummified remains of a teenager buried 2,300 years ago have long remained shrouded in mystery. Now they have been “digitally unpacked” by scientists, revealing intimate details that have gone undiscovered for over a century.

Radiologists at Cairo University in Egypt used CT scans to unwrap the remains non-invasively, finding signs of wealth as well as efforts to secure his safe passage to the afterlife.

According to the authors of a study published Tuesday of the finds, 49 precious amulets adorned the remains, including a gold heart-shaped scarab that was used to replace the boy’s heart.

Egyptian embalmers placed amulets to protect and provide vitality to the body in the afterlife, and a golden tongue amulet was placed inside the mouth to ensure the deceased could speak in the afterlife.

The wrappers are digitally removed to reveal body-covering amulets.
The wrappers are digitally removed to reveal body-covering amulets. Sahar Saleem / Cairo University

Sahar Saleem, professor of radiology at Cairo University School of Medicine and co-author of the study, told NBC News that the intact remains revealed both the socioeconomic status of the boy – likely from a wealthy family – and the importance of amulets in the afterlife, which was central to the complex belief system of the ancient Egyptians.

The body had undergone a “very expensive and meticulous modification process”, said Saleem, who has been digitally unwrapping mummies for years, including members of the pharaonic royal family. “I would say he came from a very wealthy family or maybe from a noble family,” she added.

Saleem wrote in the study that “the scarab of the heart is mentioned in chapter 30 of the Book of the Dead: it was important in the afterlife during the judgment of the deceased and the weighing of the heart against the feather of the goddess Maat “.

The mummified remains were discovered in 1916 in a cemetery in Nag el-Hassay, southern Egypt, which was used between 332 and 30 BC. AD approximately, in what is called the Ptolemaic period. It was stored without examination in the basement of the Egyptian Museum in Cairo until further study.

Experts were able to determine that the boy was 14 or 15 years old, using the degree of bone fusion and the wisdom teeth that had not come out. He was 4 feet 2 (128 centimeters) tall and uncircumcised, and the cause of death could not be determined, according to the study.

The boy’s remains were placed in two coffins, an exterior with Greek inscription in black and an interior wooden sarcophagus.

As well as being buried with a golden mask, the teenager was also buried with a pair of sandals.

“The sandals were probably meant to get the boy out of the coffin,” Saleem wrote. “According to the ritual book of the ancient Egyptians of the dead, the deceased had to wear white sandals to be pious and clean before reciting his verses.”

Left: The body adorned with ferns and wearing a golden mask.  Right: the inner coffin.
Left: The body adorned with ferns and wearing a golden mask. Right: the inner coffin.Sahar Saleem / Cairo University

Joann Fletcher, an Egyptologist and University of York professor who was not involved in the study, told NBC News it demonstrates the value of “non-invasive, non-destructive forms of analysis.”

“CT imaging for 3D printing purposes can produce real breakthroughs in the field of mummy studies – we ourselves used this same pioneering technology in 2020 to produce the authentic vocal sound of an ancient Egyptian for the very first time,” she said.

Amulets were placed both inside the “golden boy” and between the wrappers used to mummify the remains, the study published on Tuesday found. Analysis revealed that they were arranged in three columns.

“It is good to see such scanning techniques being used to examine how these characteristic amulets were placed at specific points on the body where they served for protective purposes,” Fletcher said.

Most of the amulets were made of metal, probably gold, and the remaining amulets were made of earthenware, stones or baked clay, the study found.

“Too often in the past they have been removed from their original context on the body and are therefore seen as little more than jewelry, which is to misunderstand their true purpose as a powerful amulet,” said added Fletcher.

The new study comes as museums across the UK debate whether the term ‘mummy’ is appropriate to describe mummified remains, due to what some say are its ‘dehumanizing’ connotations.

“When we know an individual’s name we use that, otherwise we use the term ‘mummified man, woman, boy, girl or person’ on our labels because we are talking about people, not objects,” said said a spokesperson for the national museums. Scotland said in an email.

“The word ‘mummy’ is not incorrect, but it is dehumanizing, while the use of the term ‘mummified person’ encourages our visitors to think of the individual.”

Charlene Gubash reported from Cairo and Aina J. Khan from London.

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