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Scientists recreate face of 2,000-year-old Egyptian mummy dubbed the ‘Mysterious Lady’ with help of forensics

Experts analysed the mummy’s skull and other remains to recreate how she may have looked in the first century BC.

The face of a 2,000-year-old Egyptian mummy dubbed the Mysterious Lady has been recreated by scientists in Warsaw.

Experts produced two images showing what the woman may have looked like in the first century BC by analysing her skull and other remains.

The photographic-quality images show a woman of North African appearance with a striking gaze.

Italian forensic anthropologist and member of the Warsaw Mummy Project Chantal Milani said: “Our bones and the skull in particular, give a lot of information about the face of an individual.

Producing two images, the photographic-quality images show a woman of North African appearance with a striking gaze.Body 1: Hew Morrison/ Chantal Milani/ Warsaw Mummy Project

“The face that covers the bone structure follows different anatomic rules, thus standard procedures can be applied to reconstruct it, for example, to establish the shape of the nose.

“The most important element is the reconstruction of the thickness of the soft tissues at numerous points on the surface of the facial bones. For this, we have statistical data for various populations across the globe.”

Though she warned that the reconstruction is not an exact portrait, she added that the skull, like many anatomical parts, is unique and shows a set of shapes and proportions that make our faces different.

The fascinating images have emerged as researchers are raging about whether the mummy was pregnant or not, with two camps coalescing around the ‘bundle’ theory and the ‘pickled gherkin’ theory.

Italian forensic anthropologist and member of the Warsaw Mummy Project Chantal Milani said: “The face that covers the bone structure follows different anatomic rules, thus standard procedures can be applied to reconstruct it, for example, to establish the shape of the nose. Warsaw Mummy Project

In April 2021, the Warsaw Mummy Project at the University of Warsaw announced that the mummy was pregnant, making it the first known case of a pregnant Ancient Egyptian mummy.

The mummy was previously thought to be the remains of the male priest Hor-Jehuti.

However, in 2016 it was discovered to be an embalmed woman.

The Mysterious Lady was found in royal tombs in Thebes, Upper Egypt in the early 1800s and dates back to the first century BC, a time when Cleopatra was Queen.

The fascinating images have emerged as researchers are raging about whether the mummy was pregnant or not, with two camps coalescing around the ‘bundle’ theory and the ‘pickled gherkin’ theory.Warsaw Mummy Project

The mummy was taken to Warsaw in December 1826, around the time of some of the most important discoveries from the Egyptian Valley of the Kings.

A close examination using tomographic imaging revealed that the woman was between 20-30 years old when she died and according to the researchers was in her 26th to 30th week of her pregnancy.

Publishing their findings in the Journal of Archaeological Science, the researchers explained that the foetus was ‘pickled’ in an acidic environment in a process similar to how ancient bodies in swamps are preserved.

Anthropologist, archaeologist and co-director of the Warsaw Mummy Project Marzena Ożarek-Szilke said: “During the mummification process, the deceased was covered with natron, or natural soda, which was intended to dry the body.

“The foetus, however, remained in the uterus and began to ‘pickle’ in the acidic environment.”

She added that the process was similar to the “gherkin in a barrel effect”.

Ożarek-Szilke said that the foetus was difficult to spot because the normal way to see it is to look for tell-tale bones that are mineralised during the mummification process.

She said the foetus was still in the uterus and began to “pickle” in an acidic environment. Formic acid and other compounds formed after death in the uterus due to decomposition changed the Ph inside the woman’s body.

A close examination using tomographic imaging revealed that the woman was between 20-30 years old when she died and according to the researchers was in her 26th to 30th week of her pregnancy.Warsaw Mummy Project

The change from an alkaline to an acidic environment caused minerals to leach out of foetal bones.

This process “explains why we can hardly see any foetal bones on CT images. It is true that you can see, for example, hands or feet, but these are not bones, but dried tissues,” Ożarek-Szilke said.

However, in August this year, the pregnant mummy theory miscarriaged when researchers at the National Museum in Warsaw said that the conclusion that the mummified woman was pregnant was the result of ‘a computer illusion and misinterpretation.’

Writing in July’s Archeological and Anthropological Sciences, bioarchaeologist and co-founder of the Warsaw Mummy Project Kamila Braulińska said that what appeared to be a foetus was in fact a number of bundles placed inside the corpse by ancient embalmers.

Braulińska explained: “In the bundles, there is probably at least one mummified organ of the deceased. It was a well-known practice in ancient Egypt.

However, writing in July’s Archeological and Anthropological Sciences, bioarchaeologist and co-founder of the Warsaw Mummy Project Kamila Braulińska said that what appeared to be a foetus was in fact a number of bundles placed inside the corpse by ancient embalmers.Kamila Braulińska UW/WMP

“The remaining bundles may contain body parts or other products of the mummification process.

“There is also another possibility – embalmers placed bundles in the mummies in order to maintain the shape of the body after the mummification process.”

She added that proof that the woman was not pregnant came from the results of quantitative measurements of radiological densities, as well as the geometric arrangement of the bundles and a comparison of the materials inside the mummy.

According to the article’s authors, the alleged discovery of the mummy’s pregnancy resulted from an illusion caused by the phenomenon of pareidolia, a natural human desire to see familiar objects in random shapes.

The mummy and the sarcophagus in which it rests are on display at the permanent Gallery of Ancient Art at the National Museum in Warsaw, which opened in February 2021.


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