X-ray diffraction provides new gateway to analyze mummies

Sooraj Shah ’24

Figure 1: Use of X-ray diffraction allows researchers to uncover contents within a mummy while keeping it intact

Since the 20th century discovery of the tomb of King Tutankamun, the excitement around discovering mummies has been a topic of controversy, particularly regarding how the mummies are handled once they are discovered. Unwrapping and disrupting the mummies’ final resting place is considered to be invasive. A study by Dr. Stuart Stock, a professor within the cell and molecular biology department at Northwestern University, used X-ray diffraction as an alternative to physically unraveling a 2,000 year old mummified child in order to investigate the contents within. 

At the Argonne National Laboratory, researchers inferred that there were several objects within the mummified body that were placed with it for the afterlife. CT scans combining a series of X-ray measurements taken at different angles helped to produce a 3D image of the mummy. The scans revealed areas of density where X-ray diffraction had the highest chance of finding the materials. Next, X-ray diffraction was conducted by shining an X-ray beam through the mummy at these “dense” areas and observing the resulting pattern.

This study yielded a plethora of details about the mummy without even touching it. The cause of death was indeterminate as there were no visible damage to it. An amulet buried with the child was made of calcite, which allowed researchers to determine when and where it originated. In addition, the mummies’ dental analysis revealed the absence of adult teeth, further proving that the mummy was indeed a child around 5 years of age. 

The extensive results of this study exhibit the validity and efficiency of X-ray diffraction and CT scanning as viable techniques to examine mummies while keeping them intact. Future research can be focused on perfecting this method, providing a pathway and precedent for other investigations regarding mummies. 

Works Cited 

[1] Stock, R.S., Stock K.M., and Almer D.J., Combined computed tomography and position resolved X-ray diffraction of an intact Roman-era Egyptian portrait mummy. The Royal Society 30, Issue 172, (2020). Doi: https://doi.org/10.1098/rsif.2020.0686

[2] Image retrieved from: https://images.unsplash.com/photo-1601182269298-bff90988d6ec?ixid=MXwxMjA3fDB8MHxzZWFyY2h8MXx8bXVtbXl8ZW58MHx8MHw%3D&ixlib=rb-1.2.1&auto=format&fit=crop&w=400&q=60


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