By: Basma Al-Salem
“Ancient Egypt Papyrus Writing” by Gary Lee Todd, Ph.D. is marked with CC0 1.0. To view the terms, visit https://creativecommons.org/publicdomain/zero/1.0/?ref=openverse.
History is the most important thing humans need in the world. From religions to knowledge to even the creation of the pyramids These are things we question and still don’t understand, but try to because we still have some knowledge from our history. Without history, we wouldn’t be able to do the things we can. With technology, we are now able to find more information from ancient scrolls, mummies with questionable pasts, and DNA showing what people looked like in the past.
Herculaneum scrolls are 2,000-year-old scrolls that survived the eruption of Mount Vesuvius, which happened in 79 AD. This same eruption was the same one that made Pompeii the way it is today. It was said that the Herculaneum scrolls were found in the 1700s in a well. It was believed these scrolls came from the house of Julius Caesar’s father-in-law’s house, according to the University of Kentucky. The Herculaneum scrolls are around 1,000 scrolls that are stuck together and have been untouchable because they would crumble from any movement.
The Challenge Vesuvius is a challenge that calls people to figure out any letter from the Herculaneum scrolls. According to Brent Seales, who is a computer scientist at the University of Kentucky, “an important step was perfecting the use of CT scan technology to see what’s inside them without actually touching them, a process he calls “virtual unwrapping” (Binswanger 6). The reason why the challenge was created was that the scrolls were not able to go through the CT scan to see all the letters. The ink that was used to write on the scrolls was made from charcoal and water, and with the CT scan, you wouldn’t be able to see anything. Seales used CT scan technology in 2016 for the En-Gedi scroll, which in the end worked perfectly because the ink had metal, which showed up on the scans.
The Challenge Vesuvius was created by Seales this year to help figure out different ways to use AI to find any letter or word in the Herculaneum scrolls. There were few “winners” in the Challenge Vesuvius who helped figure out anything from the scrolls. The first winner was Casey Handmer, said by the Challenge Vesuvius people, “the first person to find substantial, convincing evidence of ink within the unopened scrolls.” (Binswanger 8). He was able to win $10,000 and help the next person. Luke Farritor was able to use Handmer’s crackle pattern to help with his finding, which, “created a machine-learning algorithm that identified ten legible letters on a small segment of parchment.” (Binswanger 9). Luke Farritor and Youssef Nader were both able to figure out the same word, “porphyras,” which is a Greek word for purple. Farritor and Nader again were able to figure out the word, and at the same time, the prize was shared between both, with Farritor getting 40,000 and Nader getting 10,000.
There are three mummies that are unknown to many researchers because we don’t know who they are! Mummies, as known, are a process that many important figures in ancient Egypt went through because they believed that when you lay to rest, the items with you were taken with you to the afterlife. Mummification is something that is very expensive to do and is usually reserved for pharaohs, which are kings, queens, and high priests, with sometimes nobles. The researchers have three mummies to scan to figure out more about each mummy and maybe try to figure out who they really are.
With these mummies being unknown, they were each given names by the researchers with different meanings. The first mummy was Henut-Wedjebu, “Her name means “singer of Amun and lady of the house,” and her elaborately gilded coffin, decorated with texts from the Book of the Dead, is one of only eight such objects to survive from the reign of Amenhotep III (1390–1353 B.C.).” (Purdy & Otten 12). It is believed that she is the oldest of all three mummies. It was said she was found near Thebes, in a cave tomb.
The next mummy was Pet-Menekh, “He died in his 30s or 40s, possibly of sudden trauma or acute disease. His coffin—likely found at the Necropolis of El-Hawawish in Akhmim—is richly decorated with hundreds of hieroglyphics as well as images of the goddesses Isis and Nut.” (Purdy & Otten 13). It was believed that Pet-Menekh was a priest for Chem, who was one of the gods that judged the souls of the dead. It was said that he might be from 300 B.C.
The last of the three mummies is Amen-Nakht, or Amun, “His coffin is thought to have been discovered in the Necropolis of Thebes. A painted cartonnage— a kind of funerary case made of linen and plaster—covers the body and illustrates the panoply of deities charged with escorting him into the afterlife.” (Purdy & Otten 14). It said that Amun was from 945-712 B.C. and was also a priest, but to Amun, the god of air.
The researchers wanted to scan the mummies to figure out more about them. They first wanted to scan them with magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) but did not because they did not know if the mummies had any metals in their bodies. If they did have any metals in their bodies and were scanned by the MRI machine, it would cause huge damage to the mummies and their MRI. The other problem is that in an MRI, there is water needed in the bodies to see anything, but because the bodies of the mummies are so old, they won’t have any water. The next option would be a computerized tomography (CT) scanner like the one used for the scrolls; it would be able to make 3-D images of the mummies and the inside of them. From the CT, we learned a few things about the mummies. Henut-Wedjebu was a female, and Pet-Menekh and Amen-Nakht were both male. We learned that Henut-Wedjebu still had her brain and lung, which is weird because with mummy buried, they used to take the lungs out and put them in an urn next to the body, as well as the heart, brains, and other organs. According to the university’s Mallinckrodt Institute of Radiology, Henut-Wedjebu had something around her head, almost like a headdress, but it really could be anything. Also from the scan, we learned that Pet-Menekh’s head isn’t attached to his body, with most grave robbers being very careless of his tomb and having an amulet on his chest.
Scientists were able to take DNA from mummies and make 3-D images of their faces to see what they looked like. The DNA was taken from three male ancient Egyptian mummies to see what they really looked like. The mummies were from 1380 B.C.E. and 450 C.E., from an ancient city in Egypt south of Cairo. The researcher is using something called DNA phenotyping, which can figure out someone’s skin color, hair color, and eye color. The other characteristics, like hair and age, were found from the examination of the physical remains. Some researchers were hesitant about DNA from ancient mummies being able to be preserved because of how much humidity and heat the tomb can be able to outlast for so long.
The images that were the result of the DNA the researcher got from the mummies show something shocking. The mummies looked more Mediterranean and Middle Eastern than the modern Egyptians. According to Parabon, “ancient Egyptians shared more ancestry with Near Easterners than present-day Egyptians, who received additional sub-Saharan admixture in more recent times.” (Kindy 8)
Without history, things like culture, value, and most importantly, understanding why and what happened. At this time and age, we can understand that without the help of technology, we would not have been able to see things from the past that we wouldn’t have known. With technology, we were able to somewhat see what ancient Egyptians looked like, to see words from ancient scrolls coming from the house of Julius Caesar’s father-in-law’s house, and to see mummies being CT scanned to figure out who they are. History is the most important part of human beings; without it, we are nothing.
Nicioli, T. (2023, October 20). Ancient Herculaneum Scrolls are now readable due to AI technology, scientists say. CNN. http://www.cnn.com/2023/10/18/world/herculaneum-scroll-vesuvius-ai-deciphers-scn/index.html#:~:text=AI%20reads%20text%20from%20famously%20inscrutable%20ancient%20scroll%20for%20the%20first%20time&text=By%20using%20computer%20tomography%20and,an%20unwrapped%20ancient%20Herculaneum%20scroll.
Wu, K. J. (2019, November 5). From ashes to AI: How technology puts a new lens on ancient texts. PBS. http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/nova/article/scan-image-process-translate-ancient-text/.
Binswanger, J. (2023, October 16). This 21-year-old used A.I. to decipher text from a scroll that hasn’t been read in 2,000 years. Smithsonian.com. http://www.smithsonianmag.com/smart-news/this-21-year-old-used-ai-to-decipher-text-from-a-scroll-that-hasnt-been-read-in-2000-years-180983084/.
Purdy, M. C., & Otten, L. (2020, November 30). Three Egyptian mummies receive CT scans – the source – Washington University in St. Louis. The Source. https://source.wustl.edu/2014/10/three-egyptian-mummies-receive-ct-scans/ Kindy, D. (2021, October 1). 3-D reconstruction reveals the faces of three ancient Egyptian mummies. Smithsonian.com. https://www.smithsonianmag.com/smart-news/3d-reconstruction-ancient-egyptian-mummies-180978786/