This 2,300-year-old 'golden boy' mummy has body organs made of gold

The mummy was given a golden heart and a golden tongue.
Rupendra Brahambhatt
Mummy with amulets on the left and the 'Golden boy' mummy on the right.
Mummy with amulets on the left and the 'Golden boy' mummy on the right.

SN Saleem, SA Seddik, M el-Halwagy 

Researchers at Cairo University in Egypt recently CT scanned a 2,300-year-old mummy and discovered a total of 49 amulets on and inside its body. Many of those amulets were made of gold, including a golden tongue leaf inside the mummy's mouth.

Interestingly, the mummified person was not an adult but a 15-year-old teenage boy who probably had a high-socioeconomic status. According to the researchers, the amulets placed on and inside his body are symbols of various beliefs related to the concept of the afterlife in ancient Egyptian culture. 

These findings are so exciting that the Egyptian Museum (also known as the Cairo Museum) has decided to exhibit the mummy inside its main hall under the moniker "Golden boy". 

Amulets and the afterlife in ancient Egypt

Ancient Egyptians believed in the power of amulets which depended on their material, color, and shape. Amulets were used for protection and for providing specific benefits for the living and the dead. "In modern science, this (effect) is explained by energy. Different materials, shapes, and colors (e.g., crystals) provide energy with different wavelengths that could have an effect on the body," first author and professor at Cairo University, Dr. Sahar Saleem, told IE.

During mummification, the embalmers said prayers and recited verses from the Book of the Dead (historical text used by ancient Egyptian during funerary rituals) while placing amulets inside the mummy or in between the wrappings. 

Embalmers used to remove the viscera from a small opening in the left side of the lower abdomen. After cleaning the emptied body cavity with wine and drying it with (natron Salt), they introduced resin material, packs, and placed amulets too. 

The CT scan of the golden boy mummy revealed that it contains 21 different types of amulets (a total of 49). For example, a two-finger amulet was found next to its uncircumcised penis, and a golden heart scarab was found inside its thoracic cavity. All these amulets represent the power of different Egyptian gods and afterlife beliefs.

This 2,300-year-old 'golden boy' mummy has body organs made of gold
Dr. Sahar Saleem with the Golden boy mummy.

Dr. Saleem further explained, "Here we show that this mummy's body was extensively decorated with 49 amulets, beautifully stylized in a unique arrangement. These include the Eye of Horus, the scarab, the akhet amulet of the horizon, the placenta, the Knot of Isis, and others. Many were made of gold, while some were made of semiprecious stones, fired clay, or faience. Their purpose was to protect the body and give it vitality in the afterlife."

For instance, scarabs symbolized rebirth in ancient Egypt and were in the form of discoid beetles. The heart scarab is mentioned in Chapter 30 of the Book of the Dead. It's considered important in the afterlife because when a deceased person was judged by weighing their heart against the feather of Ma'at (Egyptian goddess of justice), the scarab was placed as the heart's substitute inside the body.

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If the heart of the person balanced with the feather, it meant they could proceed to the afterlife. Similarly, the golden tongue leaf was placed inside the mouth of the deceased to ensure that they could have the ability to speak in the afterlife.

The researchers created a 3D-printed version of the heart scarab discovered in the digitally unwrapped golden boy mummy. This 3D-printed scarab will soon be displayed alongside the mummy and its CT-scan images at the Egyptian Museum in Cairo.  

Unwrapping the 'Golden boy' mummy 

This 2,300-year-old 'golden boy' mummy has body organs made of gold
Coffin of the Golden boy mummy.

Unwrapping mummies physically for the purpose of research could destroy these important pieces of ancient history. The museums where most of these mummies are placed condemn any such practices. Therefore, physical unwrapping and dissection are not possible in the case of historically important dead bodies.

The Golden boy mummy came from a Ptolemaic cemetery which means that the teenage boy may have lived during the rule Ptolemaic dynasty (300 to 30 BC). Interestingly, there were differences in the mummification process practiced during the classical Egypt era and the Ptolemaic period. 

For example, "in the Greco-Roman period, the linen wrappings were transversely as well as crisscrossed across the body surface, unlike earlier when it was transversely wrapped. The body was covered by cartonnage (especially separate pieces not covering the full body) more often in the Ptolemaic period." Dr. Saleem told IE.

"Moreover, special shapes of amulets (e.g., two-finger amulet first appeared later in the 26th Dynasty and became popular in the Ptolemaic period." she further added. All these facts highlight the uniqueness and significance of the Golden boy mummy. 

So to keep it intact in every sense and study it without touching it, the researchers decided to digitally unwrap the mummy

How is a mummy digitally unwrapped? 

They used computed tomography (CT) machine for this purpose. This advanced X-ray imaging device takes hundreds (or thousands) of scans of very thin sections of the body. When combined, these form a complete 3D image of the body (like slices of toast, when put together, make a full loaf of bread).

Using computer software Dr. Saleem and her team digitally remove each layer of wrapping to visualize the amulets in between the layers, the face of the mummy, the mummy surface, and what is inside the mummy for the first time safely without physically unwrapping it. 

Virtual unwrapping using CT was the only method to reveal the secret of this mummy in a detailed way. The 2D and 3D images showed well the mummy's physical features, health, mummification style, injuries by ancient tomb robbers, as well as the treatment offered by the priests of a later dynasty. No other imaging method can provide this data. 

"The objectives of this research were to study historical objects that were not studied before; and repair, preserve, and promote them. We aim to continue studying objects from the basement of the Cairo Egyptian Museum. I also did Facial reconstruction on royal mummies based on their CT scans (Tutankhamun, and Ramesses II). I hope to continue reconstructing the face of other royal mummies as part of the Egyptian Mummy Project," said Dr. Saleem.

The study is published in the journal Frontiers in Medicine.

Study abstract:

Ancient Egyptian mummies represent an opportunity to learn more about the health, beliefs, and skills of humans in antiquity. A fully wrapped mummy, from a Late Ptolemaic cemetery (c.332-30 BC) in Edfu, Egypt, has been stored, unexamined, at the Cairo Egyptian Museum since 1916. We hypothesized that scanning and 3D-printing the mummy using Computed Tomography (CT) could help in documenting and promoting its public display. CT enabled non-invasive digital unwrapping and revealed a well-preserved mummy. Biological sex could be determined from the presence of male genitalia; epiphyseal fusion and tooth eruption indicated an approximate age at death of 14–15 years. The deceased had healthy teeth and bones without evidence of poor nutrition or disease. CT detected a high-quality mummification process that included brain removal through an iatrogenic defect of the cribriform plate and viscera removal via a left lower-abdominal incision. The heart remained in the chest as a spiritual symbol. Resin was poured into the emptied cranial and torso cavities, and linen packs were placed inside the torso. The mummy's external ornamentation includes a gilded head mask, a pectoral cartonnage, and a pair of sandals. CT identified 49 amulets inside the mummy and between the wrappings, arranged in three columns. The amulets have 21 different shapes, including Udjat, scarabs, Ajet, Djed-pillar, Tyt, Placenta, Double-Plume, and Right-angle. CT densities indicated that 30 (61%) amulets were metal (likely gold), and the other amulets were made of faience, stones, or fired clay. The embalmers placed amulets to protect and provide vitality for the body for the afterlife. A gold tongue amulet was placed inside the mouth to ensure the deceased could speak in the afterlife. A Two-finger amulet was placed beside the penis to protect the embalming incision. 3D-printing enabled the tactile and visual study of a heart scarab found inside the thoracic cavity. Findings from this study suggest that ancient Egyptians valued their children and provided them with ritual treatment. State-of-the-art techniques such as CT and 3D printing provided valuable insights and supported the museum display of the mummy, nicknamed "The Golden Boy."