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Mummy Secrets: Nuclear Science Unravels Mysteries

Inside an ancient Egyptian tomb. (Photo: R. Quevenco/ IAEA)

Was King Tut really murdered? Did the Great Pharoah Ramesses II die from a disease of the spine? The answers to these age-old mysteries are locked inside Egyptian mummies. Today, they are being unravelled through the modern science of "paleoradiology".

Paleoradiology uses nuclear technologies such as X-rays, computed tomography (CT), and Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI) to study artefacts, skeletons, mummies and fossils. Many museums worldwide use the nuclear technologies to discover otherwise hidden details that piece together historic puzzles.

Dr. Rethy Chhem, Director of the IAEA Division of Human Health, has read more than 150,000 skeleton studies in clinical practice and is an expert on the use of paleoradiology. He says the science is a key that gives radiologists insights into former lives of mummies, uncovering details such as the sex, age of death and illnesses.

Dr. Chhem cites the case the Pharoah Ramesses II in which x-rays helped solve historical questions. One question asked through the ages was whether Ramesses II really had ankylosing spondylitis, an arthritic disease inflicting the spine. The x-rays revealed that Ramesses did not have a disease of the spine, Dr. Chhem says, noting that this fits well with his biography describing him as a great warrior.

X-ray technology has been around since 1896, and CT since 1979. Advances since then make the technologies increasingly exact, and quick. Newer prototypes of computed tomography can give additional insights, including both about the well-being and nutrition of ancient mummies.

The technology has grown so rapidly that there now is a data overload, experts report. In September 2008, an advanced CT technology called iCT ("i" for intelligent) was used in a Chicago, USA, hospital to study a wealthy Egyptian priestess named Meresamum, Archaeology magazine reports. She was the first mummy scanned with iCT. Through 3D images, paleoradiologists virtually are able to unravel the mummy. The approach is non-intrusive, leaving the mummy intact, untouched, and unharmed.

The measurements of Meresamum were so precise the scan was able to extract 30 billion measurements. The raw data collected was 1000 times greater than that available in the 1990s. The resulting profile of the priestess provided details about her looks, health, eating habits and lifestyle. The full data will take more than a year to analyze.


The IAEA is helping interested countries apply nuclear technologies for purposes of archaeological study and cultural preservation. Nuclear analytical techniques and imaging systems are widely used in many fields. The methods include neutron activation analysis, proton-induced X-ray emission, accelerator mass spectrometry, X-ray fluorescence spectrometry and computed tomography. Applications range from art- and cultural investigations to monitoring pesticides in milk to finding answers to the sudden death of young males in northeast Thailand. The nuclear methods also rank among the best tools for monitoring environmental pollution.

Last update: 27 Jul 2017

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