The mystery of the mummified heads

Another frequently asked question In the Artifact Lab is, “what’s the story with those mummified heads, and where are their bodies?”.

A disembodied, but completely wrapped mummified head in the Artifact Lab

Well, it is a bit of a mystery, and we don’t know why these heads are detached from their bodies, exactly.

We have 5 heads in the lab right now, all without any other remains. While two came in as gifts to the museum, the other three were collected by excavation, and all have been in the collection since the beginning of the 20th century. One, the head above, is still completely wrapped. The others are mostly, if not completely, missing their bandages but still have impressions of their linen wrappings and other residues from the mummification process remaining on the preserved skin, hair, and bones.

One of the unwrapped heads, showing evidence of the mummification process. In the Graeco-Roman Period, gold leaf was used to decorate parts of the body, as seen on this man’s head.

Close examination of these heads can provide some clues as to how they became detached. The head in the first image above, for instance, is still wrapped and there is a clean cut through the wrappings-this could not have happened by mistake or through deterioration-it had to have been cut off. Cut marks are also visible on another head-on both the bone and the preserved skin.

The wrapped head, showing the cross-section of the cut linen bandages around the neck. Human remains are preserved inside.

Why were these heads cut off? That’s also unclear, but it is very possible that the heads were severed as a result of looting. Bodiless heads have been excavated from tombs that clearly have been robbed and looting has been cited as the cause of these disturbed remains. Investigations in our archives may also reveal other clues-if we find anything we will provide an update!

While we may never be able to find out who these people were, there are things to discover from their remains-the heads can be CT-scanned in order to understand more about the mummification process (as seen in this study done at the MFA in Boston), determining sex if unclear, and possibly help in figuring out cause of death. DNA analysis may also be possible. Again, we will provide updates as we learn more. To read more about previous CT-scanning done at our museum on other Egyptian mummies, follow this link.