Ancient Egyptians believed that when a person died, the spiritual body sought out an afterlife. But, entry was not a guarantee. A perilous journey through the underworld was required before an an individual could reach Osiris (the god of the deceased) and the Hall of Final Judgement. Relatives of the dead and embalmers did all that they could to help ensure that their loved one may reach a happy destination in the afterlife, and many of these practices and beliefs were written and edited in the Book of the Dead, likely around the 16th century BCE.
Thousands of years later, scientists are still unwrapping the details of these burial practices. A study published January 24 in the journal Frontiers in Medicine describes how a team Egypt used computerized tomography (CT) to “digitally unwrap” the intact, never-opened mummy of a 2,300-year-old teenage boy from a high socioeconomic class that was buried with at least 49 amulets. The discovery is shedding light into mummification procedures and the importance of grave ornaments during Egypt’s Ptolemaic period (from 305 to 30 BCE).
The “Golden boy,” mummy was found in 1916 at a cemetery in Nag el-Hassay in southern Egypt that was used between approximately 332 and 30 BCE. The mummy features many examples of ancient Egyptian beliefs about life after death. He was armed with no fewer than 49 amulets of 21 types to promote the resurrection of his body, wore sandals as a symbol of purity, and had meaningful ferns wrapped around his body.
“Here we show that this mummy’s body was extensively decorated with 49 amulets, beautifully stylized in a unique arrangement of three columns between the folds of the wrappings and inside the mummy’s body cavity. 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,” said Sahar Saleem, a co-author and a professor at the Faculty of Medicine of Cairo University, Egypt, in a statement.
The amulets represent a wide range of Egyptian beliefs about death and the afterlife. Someone placed a golden tongue leaf inside the mouth to ensure that he could speak in the afterlife, while the two-finger amulet placed beside his penis was added to protect the embalming incision. An Isis Knot called on Isis, the power of the goddess of healing and magic, to protect the body. Additionally, a right-angle amulet was included to bring balance and leveling and double falcon and ostrich plumes represented the duality of a person’s spiritual and material life.
The mummy was laid inside two coffins. The outer coffin had a Greek inscription and the inner was wooden sarcophagus. He also wore a a gilded head mask, a chest covering on the front of the torso, and a pair of sandals. “The sandals were probably meant to enable the boy to walk out of the coffin. According to the ancient Egyptians’ ritual Book of The Dead, the deceased had to wear white sandals to be pious and clean before reciting its verses,” said Saleem.
CT scans revealed that the the boy was uncircumcised, about four feet tall, but didn’t reveal any known cause of death other than something natural. The team estimates that he was between 14 and 15 years-old from the amount of bone fusion and the lack of wisdom teeth. His mouth also didn’t have any evidence of tooth loss, dental caries, or periodontal disease.
The mummy’s outer surface also had symbolic ferns woven around it. “Ancient Egyptians were fascinated by plants and flowers and believed they possessed sacred and symbolic effects. Bouquets of plants and flowers were placed beside the deceased at the time of burial: this was done for example with the mummies of the New Kingdom kings Ahmose, Amenhotep I, and Ramesses the Great. The deceased was also offered plants in each visit to the dead during feasts,” said Saleem.
His heart, which was believed to be a person’s center of intelligence and being, remained in tact, but the rest of the organs had been removed through an incision and the brain was removed through the nose and replaced with resin.
Inside the mummy’s thoracic cavity (which contains the heart and lungs), the researches found an amulet of a golden scarab beetle. The team 3D printed a replica version of the amulet for display and study.
“The heart scarab is mentioned in chapter 30 of the Book of the Dead: it was important in the afterlife during judging the deceased and weighing of the heart against the feather of the goddess Maat. The heart scarab silenced the heart on Judgement Day, so as not to bear witness against the deceased. It was placed inside the torso cavity during mummification to substitute for the heart if the body was ever deprived of this organ,” said Saleem.
The management team at The Egyptian Museum has sinced moved the mummy to their main exhibition hall under the nickname “Golden boy.”