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When a teenager died in Egypt 2,300 years ago, he was mummified and adorned with 49 protective amulets and a gold mask to guide him through the afterlife.
Researchers discovered the amulets placed on and in the body of the mummified “golden boy” when they used computed tomography scans to digitally extract the remains without disturbing them.
The remains were first discovered in 1916 in a cemetery called Nag el-Hassay used in southern Egypt between about 332 BC and 30 BC. Thousands of preserved bodies, many still in their original coffins, were exhumed in Egypt in the 19th and early 20th centuries before being moved to the Egyptian Museum in Cairo.
Like many others, the mummy remained unexamined after its discovery and was moved to the museum’s basement.
While researchers are interested in learning more about ancient human health, as well as the death rites and beliefs of ancient Egyptians, extracting mummified remains is a destructive process. In recent years, researchers have used CT scans to look under the casings while keeping the bodies completely intact.
The golden boy’s remains were stored in two nested coffins. The outer coffin was simple and inscribed with Greek letters, while the inner wooden sarcophagus bore patterns and a gilded face.
When researchers scanned the mummy, they saw 49 amulets with 21 different designs, including a gold tongue in the mouth and a gold heart scarab in the chest, which the ancient Egyptians believed could aid in the transition to the afterlife.
The young man, believed to be between the ages of 14 and 15, also wore a gilded head mask inlaid with stones and a protective covering called a ‘cartonnage’ over his torso. All of his organs had been removed, except for his heart, and his brain had been replaced with resin.
The ancient Egyptians believed that another life awaited after death, but reaching the afterlife required a perilous journey through the underworld. Embalmers made sure the bodies were prepared for this journey and the golden boy was well rested for the journey, according to a study published Tuesday in the journal Frontiers in Medicine.
“Here we show that the body of this mummy was elaborately decorated with 49 amulets beautifully stylized in a unique arrangement of three columns between the folds of the casings and within 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 semi-precious stones, baked clay, or faience. Their purpose was to protect the body and give it vitality in the afterlife,” said study co-author Dr. Sahar Saleem, a professor at Cairo University’s Faculty of Medicine, said in a statement.
White sandals were placed at his feet, while his body was wreathed with ferns.
“The sandals were probably meant to make the boy walk out of the coffin. According to the ritual Book of the Dead of the ancient Egyptians, the deceased had to wear white sandals to be pious and clean before reciting the verses,” Saleem said. “Ancient Egyptians were fascinated by plants and flowers and believed they had sacred and symbolic effects. Bouquets of plants and flowers were placed next to the deceased at the funeral.”
While the scans did not clarify his cause of death, they did reveal that the boy was 128 centimeters tall and had an oval-shaped face with a small nose and narrow chin.
His identity remains unknown, but his good oral hygiene, the high quality of his mummification and the amulets suggest he had a high socioeconomic status, according to the study.
The gold tongue amulet placed in the boy’s mouth was meant to help him speak in the afterlife. An Isis Knot amulet meant that the goddess Isis would protect his body. Falcon and ostrich feather amulets represented the spiritual and material aspects of life.
A two-finger amulet, in the shape of the index and middle fingers of the right hand, was found in his lower body to protect his embalming incision. And it was thought that the golden dung beetle would help in the heavy underworld.
“The heart scarab is mentioned in Chapter 30 of the Book of the Dead: It was important in the afterlife during the judging of the deceased and the weighing of the heart against the goddess Maat’s feather,” Saleem said. “The heart scarab silenced the heart on the Day of Judgment, so as not to testify against the deceased. It was placed in the trunk cavity during mummification to replace the heart if the body was ever deprived of this organ.
Gathering data using the CT scans allowed the researchers to 3D print a copy of the heart scarab.
The golden boy has been moved to the main exhibit space of the Egyptian Museum and will be surrounded by CT images and the copy of the heart scarab to provide further insight into the mummification process and death rituals of ancient Egyptians.
“The purpose of the display was to humanize this past individual to teach modern humans about life in ancient times,” the researchers wrote in the study.