University College London
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Deep Imaging Egyptian Mummy Cases

posted on 2022-11-11, 13:43 authored by Adam GibsonAdam Gibson, Melissa TerrasMelissa Terras

Under the direction of University College London (UCL), this international, multidisciplinary project assessed the feasibility of using non-destructive digital imaging technology to make texts visible in images of papyrus in Ancient Egyptian mummy case cartonnages for open research and analysis. Our pilot project has led to an understanding of which imaging modalities are worth pursuing in future research projects.

The massive finding of papyri in Egypt between the end of the 19th and the beginning of the 20th century has dramatically increased our knowledge of the ancient world. The recovering of new texts has brought to light classical and biblical literature, and everyday writing of people that have changed the way we interpret antiquity. Papyri were and still are found in two main ways: in situ, i.e. where they were left by the ancients, or recycled for fabricating other objects such as mummy masks and coverings, book binding and other kinds of what scholars broadly define as 'cartonnage.' Papyri were also used sometimes to stuffing animal mummies. In the past, the awareness that such ancient objects could be filled with manuscripts has led papyrologists to destroy cartonnage, mummy masks and other material for retrieving their contents. With the passing of decades, specialists' recognition of the problems connected with such practice has increased, and new, less invasive techniques have been developed in order to avoid the destruction of important historical evidence. The decision to eventually dismount cartonnage involves careful evaluations of the pros and cons and of the methods to be followed.

Besides papyrologists, conservators and other specialists, the practice of dissolving cartonnage in order to retrieve papyri has been employed by dealers and collectors seeing the opportunity to multiply their earnings or simply looking for manuscripts without recognizing the issues involved with the destruction of ancient artefacts. In these cases, the damage produced to our cultural heritage is even greater since little if any attention to the methods employed and to the recording of the process is paid.

The application of advanced imaging techniques has the potential to dramatically improve our study of papyri encapsulated in ancient artefacts and will potentially solve the problem of invasive, destructive approaches to the remains of our ancient past. This exploratory, pilot project, working with a range of international partners and collections between November 2015 and December 2017, tested the feasibility of non-destructive imaging of multi-layered Papyrus found in Egyptian mummy cartonnages.

Our research has shown that no current single imaging technique can identify both iron and carbon based inks at depths within cartonnage. If we are to detect and ultimately read text within cartonnage, a multimodal imaging approach is required, but this will necessarily be limited by cost, access to imaging systems, and the portability of both the system and the cartonnage.

We are currently in the process of publishing lessons-learned on findings and imaging methodologies for further research, including on affordances and limitations of specific imaging approaches, and how they can be used in tandem to recover extant text within layers of cartonnage. 

This data is hosted by UCL Research Data Repository for public access and use. All images are licensed for use under Creative Commons 0 1.0 Universal License.

This data set comprises a core content set of digital images, analytical data and technical reports on the imaging and analysis of mummy mask cartonnage and modern surrogates. These are intended for access by researchers, scholars, students and the general public. The data set contains the following folders organized by imaging method:

  •  Documentation.7z contains documentation, metadata, photographs and reports for each modality (151MB).
  •  Data_FiberOpticReflectanceSpectroscopy.7z is Fiber Optic Reflectance Spectroscopy Data from testing conducted by Equipoise Imaging (30MB)
  •  Data_OpticalCoherenceTomography.7z is Optical Coherence Tomography Data from imaging conducted in the Duke University Eye Center and Department of Biomedical Engineering. (619MB)
  •  Data_Terahertz.7z is Terahertz Data from experimental imaging at the University of Western Australia (1MB)
  •  Data_Xray.7z contains XRF data from the SLAC Stanford Synchrotron Radiation Lightsource in California and "Micro-CT ALS Berkeley" data from the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory Advanced Light Source in California. (21.3GB).
  •  ImageData_RBT.7z - Multispectral imaging data from RB Toth Associates at Duke University and University of California at Berkeley, with processed images of US and UCL images. (31 GB.)
  •  UCBsn_LC.7z - Data from multispectral imaging at the University of California at Berkeley s.n. cartonnage fragment by the Library of Congress before and after x-ray of the fragment for damage assessment (2.1GB)
  •  UCL_Digital_Humanities.7z - Data from multispectral imaging of the UCL Phantom surrogates and Petrie Museum cartonnage UC806037i in the UCL Centre for Digital Humanities, London. (22.6GB)
  •  UManchester_JohnRylands: Data from multispectral imaging of both sides of cartonnage Greek P458 P458 at the University of Manchester John Rylands Library. (5.5GB)

README files with more specific information are included with the data set from each imaging modality.

This data was first shared online in July 2017. It was moved to its current location and assigned a doi in November 2022.


This work was funded by Arcadia, a charitable fund of Lisbet Rausing and Peter Baldwin as part of the “Deep Imaging Mummy Cases: Non-Destructive Analysis of Multi-Layered Papyrus” project.Footnote 5 Arcadia serves humanity by preserving endangered cultural heritage and ecosystems. Because knowledge should belong to all, Arcadia also promotes open access, seeking to make information available without barriers of cost or distance.


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