A group of students at Northwestern University in the US is studying an intriguing subject — a rare portrait mummy of a five-year-old girl, which was excavated from Egypt in 1911. The study of this rare archaeological object is part of an interdisciplinary class at Northwestern focused, in part, on filling out the contextual story of where this mummy came from and who she was, the university said in a statement this week. Thirteen materials science and humanities students are examining the materials and methods used to create this intact portrait mummy for an upcoming exhibition at Northwestern’s Block Museum of Art.

Scientists do not yet fully know how her body was prepared 1,900 years ago in Egypt, what items she may have been buried with, the quality of her bones and what material is present in her brain cavity. As part of a comprehensive scientific investigation, the mummy was brought to the Argonne National Laboratory in the US earlier this week for a first-of-its-kind X-ray scattering experiment. “This is a unique experiment, a 3-D puzzle,” said Stuart Stock of Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine, who led the experiment.

“We have some preliminary findings of 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,” Stock added. The Roman-Egyptian mummy — which resides at the Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary on Northwestern’s Evanston campus — is one of only approximately 100 portrait mummies in the world. These mummies have an extremely lifelike painting of the deceased individual incorporated into the mummy wrappings and placed directly over the person’s face, a style introduced by the Romans.

Just over three feet long, the little girl’s body is swaddled in a copious amount of linen. The outermost wrappings have been arranged in an ornate geometric pattern of overlapping rhomboids and serve to frame the portrait. The face, painted with beeswax and pigment, gazes serenely outward, her dark hair gathered at the back. She is wearing a crimson tunic and gold jewelry.”Intact portrait mummies are exceedingly rare, and to have one here on campus was revelatory for the class and exhibition,” said Marc Walton of Northwestern’s McCormick School of Engineering.

Walton is teaching the autumn quarter class with Taco Terpstra, Assistant Professor of Classics and History at the Weinberg College of Arts and Sciences. Prior to its trip to Argonne, the mummy had a CT scan at Northwestern Memorial Hospital in August. The scan gave the researchers a 3-D map of the structure of the mummy and enabled them to confirm the girl is about 5 years old. The findings from the X-ray experiment, CT scan and other scientific analyses and studies of history conducted by the students are expected to help researchers and historians had better understand the context in which the mummy was excavated in 1911 as well as Roman-period mummification practices.