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Ancient Egypt is coming back to life. And technology is making it happen

Experts are using AI and other advanced technologies to uncover pharaohs' lives, deaths, and even their physical appearances

Ancient Egypt is coming back to life. And technology is making it happen
[Source photo: Anvita Gupta/Fast Company Middle East]

In May, a discovery captured the world’s imagination when King Tutankhamun, the fabled Egyptian pharaoh who ruled over 3300 years ago, was brought back to life through technology.

A team of scientists and graphics experts from Australia, Italy, and Brazil recreated the king’s visage, utilizing a digital model of the king’s mummified skull as the foundation for reconstruction. Led by Brazilian graphics expert Cicero Moraes, the team acquired records that provided references to skull measurements and photographs of Tutankhamun.

“He looks like a young man with a delicate face,” says Moraes. “Looking at him, we see more of a young student than a politician full of responsibilities, which makes the historical figure even more interesting.”

“With the data and some important cephalometric measurements, it was possible to take the digital skull of a virtual donor and adjust it so that it became the skull of Tutankhamun,” explains Moraes.

Every feature was meticulously crafted, from the size of the lips to the position of the eyeballs, from the height of the ears to the front side of the nose. The team relied on computerized tomography (CT) scans to guide their choices, basing their projections on statistical studies on living individuals of various ancestries.

To further enhance the accuracy of the reconstruction, the researchers incorporated information from the descendants of Tutankhamun to create an authentic portrayal of the ancient pharaoh.


In an era where technology is revolutionizing our ability to foresee the future, from predicting individual lifespans to deciphering critical climate change thresholds, it’s also proving to be an ally to historians in unraveling the secrets of Egyptology, including Egyptian pharaohs’ lives, deaths, and even their physical appearances.

Dr. Sahar Saleem, a professor, and head of the radiology department at Cairo University’s Faculty of Medicine, has harnessed CT scan technology to embark on an exploration of 40 royal ancient Egyptian mummies, including Tutankhamun, Ramesses II, Ramesses III, and Amenhotep I, offering glimpses into body and facial features, and insights into the past.

One such revelation shed light on the death of King Seqenenre, who was found to be killed on a battlefield against invaders (Hyksos), and King Ramesses III was killed in a harem conspiracy. The CT scans of King Ramesses II unveiled a remarkably preserved body, attesting to the meticulous mummification process, revealing the removal of the pharaoh’s brain through the nasal passage and the generous infusion of resin material into his skull. Another discovery was a unique-shaped amulet placed within the pharaoh’s chest cavity, adding a touch of magnificence to his burial.

The CT scans also provided medical insights into King Ramesses II’s life, confirming his pronounced hunchback condition and remarkable longevity until age 90. 

“Thanks to the CT scans, I was able to disprove the ankylosing spondylitis diagnosis that had previously been made based on X-rays taken in the 1960s,” says Dr. Saleem. Instead, the CT scans made it possible to identify a degenerative spine condition associated with aging. “This diagnosis is in line with the known activities of the king as a warrior throughout his 66-year reign.”

In Grenoble, a team of experts embarked on an exploration that combines archaeology, physics, and AI to delve into a collection of mummified animals from the Ptolemaic and Roman periods housed within the Museum of Grenoble. At the helm of this endeavor is the European Synchrotron Radiology Facility, which boasts a colossal particle accelerator capable of propelling electrons at near-light speeds. This cutting-edge technology enables scientists to analyze the molecular structure of artifacts meticulously. This has proven invaluable to Egyptologists over the past decade.

In another recent collaboration, the University of Malta partnered with Grenoble’s Radiation Facility leveraging machine learning and 3D features to identify and analyze each layer of a mummy using small samples from volumetric images. The advanced algorithms can discern the diverse materials in the photos, such as textiles, organic tissues, bone, or balm resin. This research represents a leap forward in unraveling the secrets within mummified remains.

According to Johann A Briffa, who heads the University of Malta’s Computer Engineering Department and has been working on the Grenoble project, “focus of the project was the development, implementation, and testing of the segmentation algorithm itself. “ He adds that the researchers had, in previous work, used microtomography to uncover information about animal life and death in past civilizations, as well as reveal the processes used to make these mummies. 


The advantage of AI tech is efficiency. “A completely manual process takes a very long time, limiting how much researchers can learn from existing specimens while the use of AI techniques allows researchers to analyze specimens more efficiently, therefore allowing them to study more specimens,” says Briffa.

Meanwhile, for ancient texts, historians are harnessing AI and deep learning to decipher faded writings and identify the origin of these texts. 

Spearheading the Ithaca project that focuses on Ancient Greek inscriptions spanning from the 7th century BCE to the 5th century CE, Thea Sommerschield, a co-author of the research conducted at the Ca’ Foscari University of Venice and Harvard University, uses AI tools to bring ancient inscriptions back to life.

According to Sommerschield, inscriptions were important “as ancient people wrote them and were evidence of the thought, language, society, and history of past civilizations.”

“Amidst the ravages of time, many inscriptions have suffered irreparable damage, rendering their texts fragmented or illegible,” she explains. “These invaluable artifacts might have been displaced from their initial abode, making techniques like radiocarbon dating impractical when dealing with materials like stone.”

With AI tools, an accuracy of over 60% can be achieved in restoring damaged text, determining the original location, and precisely dating these inscriptions.

“The wealth of knowledge gleaned from these advancements has provided a better understanding of the ancient Egyptian people and the several aspects of civilization,” says Dr. Saleem. 


Experts contend that with AI, replication of mummies is possible. “Showing the faces of pharaohs is an important application of technology in archaeology,” says Dr. Saleem, who virtually unwrapped mummified King Amenhotep I, who reigned from 1525 to 1504 BC, to reveal his face after being hidden for more than 3000 years.

“This scientific method of facial reconstruction yields accurate results as opposed to earlier methods based on art and photos of the kings.”

Dr. Saleem says a 3D model of the skull generated from the CT data and digitally adding facial muscle thickness on King Ramesses II and King Tutankhamun helped researchers gain insights into ancient Egyptian ancestry and challenge a stereotypical image of ancient Egyptians being uniformly dark-skinned. “There was a considerable diversity in skin complexion and appearance among the population.”

Meanwhile, Briffa remarks that it would be interesting to expand the application of ASEMI in archaeology and other domains where microtomography image analysis is relevant. “It will increase the efficiency with which researchers can analyze the images obtained.”

Looking ahead, Briffa envisions a future where the accuracy, efficiency, and automation in imaging techniques reaches a point where researchers can analyze entire populations of specimens. “It would be interesting to see how archaeologists use such information and what they can learn from them.”

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Misbaah Mansuri is a UAE-based senior freelance writer who particularly loves covering topics at the intersection of technology and culture. Her work has been featured in the likes of BBC, National Geographic, and Digital Studio Middle East, among other leading publications. Gaming and technology for good spark her curiosity. More

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