(CNN)Scientists have pioneered a new technique that allows them to investigate the insides of a 1,900-year-old mummy -- without having to open up and tamper with the ancient artifact.
New X-ray technique reveals clues about ancient 1,900-year-old mummy
Researchers used a new combination of CT (computed tomography) technology and X-ray diffraction to reveal clues about a Roman-era Egyptian mummy, which was discovered in Hawara, Egypt.
For nearly a century, Egyptian mummies have been imaged noninvasively with X-rays. In findings outlined in the Journal of the Royal Society on Tuesday, the team of researchers described using a combination of CT scanning and X-ray diffraction for the first time, revealing clues about the ancient corpse lying inside.
Using a CT scan to create a "three dimensional roadmap" of the contents of the mummy, experts shone X-ray beams smaller than the diameter of a human hair onto the mummy to identify the objects inside the item's wrappings, lead author Stuart Stock told CNN.
"The X-rays give off what is essentially a fingerprint that is characteristic of the material," Stock, a researcher at Northwestern University's Feinberg School of Medicine in Chicago, explained.
What the experts from Northwestern University, Argonne National Laboratory and Metropolitan State University of Denver found on the body -- thought to belong to a 5-year-old child -- surprised them.
Researchers found a small chunk of very pure calcium carbonate in the mummy, which they believe is the right shape to be a scarab beetle, which was traditionally placed in an incision in the abdomen during mummification.
"This opaque object is about the right shape for a scarab," Stock explained. "The scarab is the symbol of rebirth," he added.
The item gives further clues about the social status of the mummy -- though not royalty, "this person was in the upper echelons of society" if such a pure material was used in their burial, Stock said.
"They could afford to have a scarab and mummification, which required a tremendous amount of resources," he said.
A study of the body also showed the child, thought to be a girl, did not suffer a violent end.
"It looks like there was no skeletal trauma," Stock said. "We don't know why this young child died."
A portrait attached to the mummy also reveals further clues about its occupant, with the hairstyle depicted dating the mummy to between 150 and 200 AD. Portrait mummies have a lifelike painting of the deceased incorporated into the mummy wrappings and placed over the person's face.