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How technology is revolutionising our understanding of ancient Egypt


A century on from the discovery of Tutankhamun’s tomb, CT scans, 3D printers and virtual reality are bringing the world of the pharaohs – and ordinary ancient Egyptians – into sharper focus



Humans



2 November 2022

Ula Šveikauskaitė

A CENTURY ago this month, Howard Carter opened the tomb of the boy king Tutankhamun. Within, he found ornate jewellery, beautiful furniture, fine clothing – and that famous gold face mask. Everything was in keeping with a royal burial from the most prosperous period in ancient Egyptian history. Or almost everything, because hidden within the mummy’s bindings, Carter discovered a dagger that seemed out of place.

The problem wasn’t with its golden sheath. It was with its blade of gleaming iron – a metal the Egyptians didn’t learn to smelt until centuries after Tutankhamun’s death. Carter had a simple explanation. He assumed the dagger was imported, perhaps from the ancient Hittite Empire in Anatolia, where there was an early iron industry. Not until 2016 was it confirmed that the iron originated from much further afield, with the discovery it contains the high levels of nickel associated with meteoric iron. For the Egyptians who wrapped the dagger close to their king’s body, it was a gift from the gods.

What makes this finding significant is the way it was made – through an X-ray analysis performed without damaging the dagger. It is indicative of a new approach to Egyptology that emphasises preservation over destruction. Whether it is studying mummies without unwrapping them or generating virtual landscapes as they existed millennia ago, we can now make discoveries Carter could have barely dreamed about while leaving artefacts intact for future generations.

Scanning a mummy is nothing new: X-rays were discovered in 1895, and a few years later, in 1903, Carter carried the …



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