Mysteries of five-year-old mummy girl unraveled in first-ever study

Scientists and students at Northwestern University are unraveling the mysteries of a little girl mummy whose body was prepared for burial some 1,900 years ago in Egypt.
By Delila James | Dec 05, 2017
Scientists and students at Northwestern University are unraveling the mysteries of a little girl mummy whose body was prepared for burial some 1,900 years ago in Egypt.

In the first study of its kind, the mummy was subjected to an "all-day X-ray scattering experiment," a university statement said.

"This is a unique experiment, a 3-D puzzle," said team leader Stuart R. Stock, a research professor of cell and molecular biology at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine, in the 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 Roman-Egyptian mummy is a portrait mummy one of only about 100 such mummies in the world.

Two-dimensional portrait mummies introduced by the Romans into Egypt were prepared with life-like paintings of the deceased placed directly over the individual's face and incorporated into the mummy wrappings. These realistic portraits replaced nearly 3,000 years of idealized three-dimensional images.

The little girl's body, just over three feet long, is wrapped in swaths of linen arranged in an elaborate geometric pattern of overlapping rhomboids. She is wearing a crimson tunic, her face is painted with beeswax and pigment, and she is adorned with gold jewelry.

"Intact portrait mummies are exceedingly rare, and to have one here on campus was revelatory for the class and exhibition," said Marc Walton, a research professor of materials science and engineering at Northwestern's McCormick School of Engineering. "This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for our undergraduate students and for me to work at understanding the whole object that is this girl mummy."

The experiment will culminate in an exhibition, titled "Paint the Eyes Softer," co-presented by the Block Museum of Art and McCormick School of Engineering. The title comes from the words left on one ancient sketch board leaving instructions to an artist.

The exhibition runs from Jan. 13 to April 22, 2018.

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