The British Museum has never allowed any of the 100 Egyptian mummies it acquired during the late 1800s to be unwound and examined. A new film exhibition at the museum now enables the viewer to look deep inside a mummy without unwrapping the body. A hospital CT (computerised tomography) scan passed X-ray beams through the 3,000-year-old body of a mummified priest called Nesperennub, and the result is a 20-minute three-dimensional film, Mummy: The Inside Story, narrated by Sir Ian McKeown, which virtually unwraps the mummy.
The priest's body was found on the banks of the Nile, in Luxor, site of the ancient city of Thebes, during the 1890s. X-rays have been used to look inside mummies since the 1960s, but the often cloudy two-dimensional images were never very satisfactory. This new scientific methodology allows the viewer to see every aspect of the body and its various adornments in 3D.
Using data found within Nesperennub's body, the film offers some fascinating insights into the life of the ancient Egyptians, including their diet, health and beliefs. The viewer can even "travel" inside the data, giving the illusion of being inside the body itself.
Visiting the exhibition on the same day as me are 30 Year 3 pupils from Christopher Hatton Primary School in the London borough of Camden. They learn about the ancient Egyptian belief that death was a gateway leading from life on Earth to a greater existence in the world of the gods, and entry to paradise was possible only through preservation of the earthly body through mummification.
The museum's school education officer, Paul Clifford, has done such a good job whetting the children's appetites that they are at fever pitch with anticipation by the time they've put on their 3D glasses and entered the auditorium. There are gasps, some of delight and some of horror, as they are led inside the mummy's body. Nesperennub's teeth are still in good condition although a bit ground down, probably from sand in the bread he once ate.
As a right-hand fan-bearer to the king, or pharaoh, part of Nesperennub's job was to deliver food for the gods to the temple - and priests were allowed to eat left-overs. The job gave Nesperennub influence via the ear of the king, and a better diet than ordinary citizens.
We learn that the priest was about 45 years old, judging from the condition of his spine and bones (a ripe old age in 800bc) and that he was five-foot-four (about 162.5 cm) tall - average for his time. As was common in mummification, his brain had been sucked out of his head through a hole made at the top of his nose and all his internal organs removed and preserved in salt and resin before being put back in. Blue glass eyes had been inserted so he could "see" in the eternal world, and a hole inside his scalp with no sign of external injury led archaeologists to believe he probably died from a brain tumour.
The film comes alive when flesh is added to the skeleton's face and Nesperennub looks like a real person, approximately the age of some of the children's parents. This is a favourite moment for many pupils, surpassed only by "the bowl on the head" scene, when the CT image reveals a strange object attached to the back of the mummy's head, which experts believe is a bowl used to pour resin over the scalp for preservation. The most likely explanation, Sir Ian tells us, is that the embalmers went for a break and found it stuck there when they returned, set firmly on Nesperennub's head.
The film uses actors to recreate the priest's life and death, and we see the embalming process being carried out, the embalmers trying in vain to remove the bowl before hurriedly wrapping their subject to avoid discovery and punishment.
Ancient Egyptians believed that when they entered the world of the gods their hearts carried all their sins, so embalmers placed a heavy item such as a carved scarab beetle over the heart to prevent its secrets being released.
The children love the ancient Egyptian idea of bling-bling - tiny metal and gold amulets placed around the body for good fortune in eternal life. These are not visible on X-rays from the 1960s, but the new CT images reveal that Nesperennub had several, including a small pillar near his throat symbolising the god Osiris, ruler of the realm of the dead.
The key stage 2 class has done a lot of work on the ancient Egyptians in history during the summer term, including an Egyptian assembly covering days in the lives of a pharaoh and a fisherman. The coffin hieroglyphs were covered in "investigating patterns" in art. Teacher Davinia Williams is impressed with the film. She says: "The boys loved the gory attractions and the girls were just very interested. They'd never seen a 3D film through their school work, just at theme parks."
Eight-year-old Ishbel is fascinated by the embalmers' error: "I knew a bit, but I didn't think the wrappers made mistakes like the bowl on the head.
They play a big part in it and I thought they'd be better trained. I loved the film though and I think all Year 3s should go." Classmate Mauro says:
"The best bit was when we saw his real face. That was amazing when it came up so close to us. Suddenly, he was a real person."
Tickets are timed and need to be purchased in advance. Showings are daily and late Thursdays and Fridays. Tel: 0207 323 8181 or visit the box office in advance. Adults pound;6. Five to 16-year-olds pound;3.
Sponsored by BT
For more information contact The British Museum, Great Russell Street, London WC1B 3DG Tel: 0207 323 8000