The papyrus that ancient Egyptians used to make mummy casings was literally scrap paper, originally used for shopping lists or tax returns. A new scanning technique that makes the ink glow is finally allowing archaeologists to read such texts without destroying the mummy, giving them unprecedented access to records of daily life, according to the BBC.
The papyrus scraps form the boxes into which the mummified bodies were placed before the boxes themselves were placed into the tomb. The writings they contain often aren’t visible to the naked eye since they’re coated in the plaster that holds the box together, according to the BBC, which meant that before the advent of the new imaging technique, researchers would have to break them apart if they wanted to read them. Now, researchers at the University College London have developed a multi-spectral imaging technique they say could put an end to such practices.
"I'm really horrified when we see these precious objects being destroyed to get to the text. It's a crime,” Kathryn Piquette, an Egyptologist working at the UCL Center for Digital Humanities’ Advanced Imaging Consultants, told the BBC. “They are finite resources and we now have a technology to both preserve those beautiful objects and also look inside them to understand the way Egyptians lived through their documentary evidence—and the things they wrote down and the things that were important to them."
The Deep Images Mummy Casings Project began in 2015 and tested the non-invasive imaging system up through December 2017. Some inks are carbon-based, while others are iron-based. No single imaging technique is able to illuminate both, according to the project's website. But since different kinds of radiation have different wavelengths, combining them helps literally light up writings across different materials. To develop the technique, the researchers designed "phantom" test papyri to explore just how many layers of plaster the system can tackle. A paper on the research is pending publication, according to the project's website.
They’ve already used it on a mummy case from a Kent museum and discovered a name inscribed at the bottom: "Irethorru,” which translates to "the eye of Horus is against my enemies,” according to the BBC. Its discovery fulfills an ancient Egyptian saying that "To speak a man’s name is to restore him to eternal life," reported the Telegraph, meaning that Irethorru's soul should now live on forever—according to his beliefs, at least.
"Because the waste papyrus was used to make prestige objects, they have been preserved for 2,000 years," project leader Adam Gibson, a professor of medical physics at the University College London, told the BBC. "And so these masks constitute one of the best libraries we have of waste papyrus that would otherwise have been thrown away.”