Scans reveal secrets of mummified ‘golden boy’ from Egypt

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

Radiologists at Cairo University in Egypt used CT scans to non-invasively unpack the remains, uncovering signs of wealth as well as trying to ensure his safe passage to the afterlife.

According to the authors of a study published on Tuesday on the findings, the remains were adorned with 49 precious amulets, including a scarab with a golden heart 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 in the mouth so that the deceased could speak in the afterlife.

The wrappings are digitally removed to reveal the amulets covering the body.  (Sahar Saleem / Cairo University)

The wrappings are digitally removed to reveal the amulets covering the body. (Sahar Saleem / Cairo University)

Sahar Saleem, a professor of radiology in Cairo University’s faculty of medicine and co-author of the study, told NBC News that the intact remains reveal both the boy’s socioeconomic status – possibly from a wealthy family – and the significance of the amulets in the afterlife, which was central to a complex belief system ancient egyptians.

The body went through “a very expensive and meticulous modification process,” said Saleem, who has been digitally unpacking mummies, including royal pharaohs, for years. “I would say that he came from a very rich family, or maybe noble,” she added.

Saleem wrote in a study that “the scarab of the heart is mentioned in chapter 30 of the Book of the Dead: it was important in the afterlife when judging the deceased and weighing the heart with the feather of the goddess Maat.”

Mummified remains were discovered in 1916 in a cemetery at Nag el-Hassay in southern Egypt that was in use between about 332 and 30 BCE, in what is known as the Ptolemaic period. Until new research was carried out, it was stored unexamined in the basement of the Egyptian Museum in Cairo.

Experts were able to determine that the boy was 14 or 15 years old, based on the degree of fusion of the bones and unerupted wisdom teeth. He was 4 feet 2 (128 centimeters) and uncircumcised, and the cause of death could not be determined.

The boy’s remains were placed in two coffins, the outer one with a Greek inscription in black and the inner wooden sarcophagus.

The teenager was buried not only with a gilded mask, but also with a pair of sandals.

“The sandals were probably intended to enable the boy to climb out of the coffin,” Saleem wrote. “According to the ritual Book of the Dead of the ancient Egyptians, the deceased had to wear white sandals to be pious and clean before reciting her verses.”

Left: Body decorated with ferns and gilded mask.  Right: Inner coffin.  (Sahar Saleem / Cairo University)

Left: Body decorated with ferns and gilded mask. Right: Inner coffin. (Sahar Saleem / Cairo University)

Joann Fletcher, an Egyptologist and professor at the University of York who was not involved in the research, told NBC News that it showed the value of “non-intrusive, non-destructive forms of analysis”.

“CT imaging for 3D printing could bring real progress to mummy research – we used the same pioneering technology ourselves in 2020 to get the authentic sound of an ancient Egyptian’s voice for the first time,” she said.

The amulets were placed inside the “golden boy” and between the wrappings used to mummify the remains, according to research published on Tuesday. The scan showed that they were arranged in three columns.

“It’s good to see scanning techniques like this being used to study how these distinctive charms were placed at specific points on the body where they served a protective purpose,” Fletcher said.

Many amulets were made of metal, possibly gold, and others of faience, stones, or baked clay.

“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, a misconception of their actual purpose as a powerful amulet,” Fletcher added.

The new study comes as museums across the UK are debating whether the term “mummy” is appropriate to describe mummified remains, due to what some say has “dehumanizing” connotations.

“Where we know a person’s name we use it, otherwise we use the term ‘mummified man, woman, boy, girl or person’ on our labels because we refer to people and not objects,” a spokesperson for the National Museums said in Scotland in a statement. e-mail.

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

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

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