Secrets of what ancient mummies look like under their wrappings are finally being revealed

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CT scanning and subsequent 3D imaging of a wooden coffin poignantly revealed an ancient Egyptian teenage boy who was mummified and placed into a coffin that was too large for him.
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The Field Museum

If you’d like to be mummified when you die, you can contact an organization in Salt Lake City, Utah, to arrange the procedure for around $70,000. Pets are cheaper, around $4,000 for an animal under 15 pounds.

It’s expensive partially because mummification is pretty rare these days. But for thousands of years, people preserved the remains of their dead as mummies. This was especially true in places with hot and dry climates, like parts of ancient Peru and Egypt.

Now, a special exhibit that’s on display at the American Museum of Natural History (AMNH) in New York allows people to see 18 of those mummies in person, some of which have not been seen since Chicago’s World Fair over 100 years ago.

In the exhibit, on tour from the collections of Chicago’s Field Museum, technology like computerized tomography (CT) scans allows visitors to see what the insides of these mummies are like for the first time. This technology allows visitors to see “who they were, what their lives were like, and even what they may have looked like,” Ellen Futter, President of AMNH, told reporters at a preview event.

The images below show some of what visitors will be able to see at the exhibit. Much of exhibit, including mummified bodies, bundles containing mummies, and body parts that were unwrapped by tomb pillagers, cannot be photographed, and will have to be seen in person.


Some South American groups created mummies even before the Egyptians. The practice continued and changed for thousands of years. A thousand years ago, this “false head” would have sat atop a mummy of the Chancay culture. The mummy itself would have been curled up and placed in a decorated bundle.

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The Field Museum/John Weinstein

The bundles of mummified extended families would be placed in pits together. These burial pits were accessible to living family members, allowing relatives to bring food or drink to their loved ones’ graves, or even to remove mummies to take them to festivals or other special events.

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This diorama shows what the pits may have looked like.
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Kevin Loria/Business Insider

Now, scans reveal what’s inside the bundles. The one here holds a woman in her 20s and two children, around ages 6 and 2.

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Kevin Loria/Business Insider

Many Peruvian mummies might be buried with tools they worked with (like fishing equipment) or with food and drink. These vessels were for corn beer (chicha) and hold little cups as if they were offering the dead a bit of refreshment.

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The Field Museum/John Weinstein

While many of the artifacts buried with mummies have been visible ever since they were discovered, the scans used by researchers for the exhibit mean this is the first time we’ve seen what’s inside many of the mummy wrappings from both Peru and Egypt.

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AMNH/C. Chesek

CT scans take hundreds of images, revealing 3D detail. This scan of the Egyptian mummy known as the “Gilded Lady” revealed that she was a woman in her forties with curly hair and a slight overbite. She may have died from tuberculosis.

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The Field Museum

And here here you can see the container the “Gilded Lady” mummy rests in. It’s being prepared for the exhibition by JP Brown, an associate conservator at the Field Museum.

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AMNH/D. Finnin

The scans give the researchers estimates of everything from facial structure to skin thickness. Using this data, they’ve created sculptures of what mummies like the “Gilded Lady” looked like in life.

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Photo: E. Daynès. Reconstruction: Elisabeth Daynès, Paris

The Egyptian mummies in the exhibit show the elaborate procedures and structures they created for the mummification process. Many coffins were covered in hieroglyphics.

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The Field Museum/John Weinstein

This coffin dates to about 700 to 600 BCE. In the upper band, the ibis-headed god Thoth holds the hand of the just deceased man. Thoth introduces the man to Osiris, god of the underworld (in the white headdress). In the lower band, the man is being embalmed by the jackal-headed god Anubis.

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The Field Museum/John Weinstein

In Egypt, organs were removed and occasionally placed into containers like the two animal-shaped containers beside the mummy here (in Peru, organs were usually not removed).

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Kevin Loria/Business Insider

Animals were also mummified in Egypt. This gazelle was probably raised at a temple in order to be mummified and used as a burial offering.

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The Field Museum/John Weinstein

This intricately wrapped mummified baby crocodile was buried as an offering in an ancient Egyptian tomb.

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The Field Museum/John Weinstein

The scans that allow researchers to non-invasively and non-destructively recreate what’s inside are revealing new elements of history, according to David Hurst Thomas, co-curator of the exhibit. “The science has changed so much in the last couple of decades,” he says. Now kids can virtually “unwrap” a mummy.

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AMNH/C. Chesek

It’s the same sort of technology used to figure out what killed this baby mammoth.

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Kevin Loria/Business Insider

The CT scans can be used to create 3D images, like this one of a teenage boy who was mummified (his skull can be seen in the introduction to this story).

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The Field Museum

The scans show the shape of eyes, nose, mouth, and ears, which an artist then sculpted to try to see what this Ptolemaic era mummy looked like in real life.

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Photo: E. Daynès. Reconstruction: Elisabeth Daynès, Paris

The resulting sculpture seems a far cry from what the mummy looks like now.

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Photo: E. Daynès. Reconstruction: Elisabeth Daynès, Paris

The exhibition will be at AMNH in New York through January 7, 2018 before it moves on to other cities; its tour will finish at The Field Museum.

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AMNH/C. Chesek