Scanning the Pharaohs: A new book on Zahi Hawass’s Egyptian Mummy Project
King Seti (1294-1279 BC) - Courtesy: Zawi Hawass and Sahar Saleem

Zahi Hawass and Sahar N. Saleem’s richly illustrated new book, Scanning the Pharaohs: CT Imaging of the New Kingdom Royal Mummies, brings ancient mummies to life and provides a glimpse of the faces of the pharaohs and their medical issues. The American University in Cairo Press has, in effect, published a 352-page health dossier with unparalleled detail on over 20 members of the New Kingdom royal family.

A collaboration between Egyptologist and controversial longtime former Antiquities Minister Hawass and Cairo University radiology professor Saleem, the book presents years of research by the Egyptian Mummy Project. Initiated by Hawass in the early 2000s, the project brings together prominent researchers and professors at Cairo University’s Faculty of Medicine and the National Research Center to create computed tomography (CT) imaging of royal mummies.

In an accessible way, the first chapter introduces the technology and science of CT scanning, as well as methodologies for identifying age at death, sex and various health-related issues.

Untangling the identity of many royal mummies is a great challenge, as almost none were discovered in their tombs. Tomb robbery was rampant in the politically and economically turbulent years after the collapse of the New Kingdom (ca. 1550 – 1069 BCE), prompting Theban priests to remove royal mummies from their tombs, re-wrap them and hide them in secret hoards deep in the arid cliffs. This has created difficulties in conclusively identifying many mummies and led to many Egyptological debates. Hawass and Saleem introduce the history of the mummy caches and take pains to parse out the problems identifying the various mummies.

The bulk of the book is a compilation of bio-stats, health information, cause of death and full imaging of each mummy. In the various chapters, the authors present the mummies according to family groups (for example, the family of Thutmose I, Hatshepsut, Akhenaten, et cetera) or unsolved historical mysteries (like the search for Nefertiti’s mummy). Each mummy is contextualized with a brief but lively historical introduction. The findings are illustrated through CT scans and photographs. Using CT imaging and a host of other technologies, the Egyptian Mummy Project digitally added flesh to the mummies’ faces — allowing the reader to visualize what the millennia-dead New Kingdom pharaohs looked like.

Scanning the Pharaohs concludes with a useful overview of royal mummification practices in the New Kingdom that, for the first time, compiles this detailed research into a handy guide.

The authors delicately tread the fine line between academic writing and approachable prose that will appeal to a general audience — thanks in part to Egyptologist Sue D’Auria’s editing. Hawass’s flare for the dramatic also emerges in the text. At the beginning, he gleefully recalls accompanying the mummy of Ramesses I from Atlanta to Cairo on an Air France flight, when the pilot announced over the loudspeaker, “We have two important people on our flight today: Ramesses I and Zahi Hawass.”

Importantly, the book highlights the excellent work done in Egypt by scientists from diverse institutions and scientific fields. The CT research was conducted by scientists at the Faculty of Medicine at Cairo University, Cairo University and the National Research Center. The results were further corroborated by scientists at University of Zurich, at the General Hospital and Central Hospital in Bolzano, Italy, as well as CT specialists at Siemens Ltd, who provided the scanning equipment. The DNA discussed in the book was analyzed at the Egyptian Museum in Cairo and the Faculty of Medicine at Qasr al-Ainy Hospital. The information gathered is a result of the cooperation between some of the top scientists in Egypt, led by Hawass and Saleem.

But the sheer scope of the book does necessitate brevity and difficult choices omitting information. Yet the absence of some vital evidence is problematic. This book thoroughly summarizes previous work (both CT and X-ray) with the New Kingdom royal mummies. Yet there is no mention of any other CT scan work on Egyptian mummies outside the Egyptian Mummy Project. Such an omission almost implies that no other teams or institutions conduct such research — which is not the case — and fails to contextualize the importance of CT imaging in Egyptology today.

In some cases, the authors do not provide enough discussion to effectively argue their case. Chapter 4 deals with the identity of the poorly preserved mummy in tomb KV55 in the Valley of the Kings. This is a hotly debated issue in Egyptology, as some scholars argue this mummy is the body of King Akhenaten, while others see it as his probable successor Smenkhkara. The crux of the KV 55 mummy debate is over the age of death, with one camp pushing for an age of 20-25, and another arguing for 35-45. Akhenaten ruled for 17 years, so was at the very least in his 30s at his time of death. Thus, if the man died in his 20s, he would be too young to be Akhenaten. Hawass and Saleem simply state the CT scans show the body was 35-45 years old without any explanation of the evidence. Without the necessary information, the reader is left unsure as to the validity of the results.

On the other hand, Scanning the Pharaohs is an engaging book that presents years of research on mummies that has only been briefly published in scholarly journals and in the media before. Beyond its initial surface appeal, this book demonstrates CT imaging and mummy research are vital in addressing unresolved historical problems. For example, Egyptologists have long debated the fate of Ramesses III (ca. 1184 – 1153). A papyrus contains trial transcripts about the far-reaching so-called Harem Conspiracy to assassinate the king. The ringleader was a wife of Ramesses III who sought to install her son on the throne. The conspirators were caught, confessed and punished with death — yet the transcripts don’t make it clear if the murder attempt was successful. Hawass and Saleem demonstrate with CT imaging that the king’s throat was slit — proving that the king was indeed assassinated.

Scanning the Pharaohs is in English, costs LE300, and is available at AUC Press bookstores.

Meredith Brand 

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