Portrait mummy of a girl, late 1st century CE, mummified remains of 5-year-old girl wrapped in linen, with a portrait in beeswax and pigments on wood. Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary, Evanston, Illinois. Photo: Northwestern University

In the 19th century, some affluent Europeans held sensational “mummy unwrapping” parties, particularly in England. Scientists and surgeons would manually unpeel the coverings from the human remains, exposing them to inspection by human eyes for the first time in millennia.

Here in the 21st century, American scientists had a kind of “unwrapping party” of their own – but instead of removing the linen swaddling, they used high-energy synchrotron X-rays and some of the most photonic tools yet available to humankind at Argonne National Laboratory.

“Today’s powerful analytical tools allow us to nondestructively do the archaeology scientists couldn’t do 100 years ago,” said March Walton, an engineering professor at Northwestern University, involved in the work.

The end product was further imaging of the face of a 5-year-old girl who died and was buried lavishly during the Roman period of Egypt approximately 1,900 years ago.

The experiment is “like a 3-D puzzle,” said Stuart R. Stock, a cell and molecular biologist at Northwestern University, who led the experiments.

“From a medical research perspective, I am interested in what we can learn about her bone tissue,” said Stock. “We have some preliminary findings about the various materials, but it will take days before we tighten down the precise answers to our questions. We have confirmed that the shards in the brain cavity are likely solidified pitch, not a crystalline material.”

The girl’s remains are one of only about 100 “portrait mummies” known to exist. They come from the Roman era of dominance over Egypt, and boast a painted, flat portrait over the face of the body, according to the work.

The remains were excavated in 1911 at the site of Hawara, in an underground chamber with four other mummies. The girl and her relatives were believed to have been prominent in their society, according to the academics.

She stood 3 feet tall, and in death her face was made up with beeswax and some pigments. Her dark hair was pulled back for burial, and she wore a crimson tunic and was adorned with gold jewelry.

The little body is stored at the Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary on the Evanston campus of Northwestern. In August, it underwent a CT scan at Northwestern Memorial Hospital. The trip to Argonne for the X-ray scanning was made this week.

Thirteen students are involved in the various analyses, including those from materials science and humanities specialties, they added.