Science and Egyptology are having a moment right now – first there was the solar eclipse that dated the reign of Ramesses the Great and now researchers have used a particle accelerator to uncover the mysteries of an Egyptian mummy.
The mummy is that of a little girl who lived 1900 years ago in Egypt and is one of only around 100 portrait mummies in the world. These mummies have an extremely lifelike painting of the deceased on the mummy wrappings directly over their face and were introduced to Egypt by the Romans. Prior to that, Egyptian tombs mostly featured idealised images of the dead, such as statues.
To find out more about the mummy girl, how her body was prepared for mummification and what items she may have been buried with, the artefact was transported to Argonne National Laboratory for an all-day X-ray scattering experiment – the first study of its kind on a human mummy.
“This is a unique experiment, a 3-D puzzle,” said Stuart R. Stock, research professor of cell and molecular biology at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine, who led the synchrotron experiment, in a statement. “We have some preliminary findings about the various materials, but it will take days before we tighten down the precise answers to our questions. We have confirmed that the shards in the brain cavity are likely solidified pitch, not a crystalline material.”
The team used the Advanced Photon Source accelerator to explore the structure of the mineral constituents in the mummy’s bones without disturbing her wrappings. The full findings will be included in an exhibition at the Block Museum of Art on campus in January.
Bone contains a high density of nanocrystals and the arrangement of the atoms within these nanocrystals scatter X-rays in different directions, revealing information about the structure.
“If you know the angles and relative intensities of these diffracted beams, then you can identify what material it is — it’s like a fingerprint,” Stock said. “As far as I know, no one has tried to non-invasively interrogate what’s inside an object like this.”