x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 28 July 2017

Mummies unmasked

Some things are better left under wraps.

Mummies have fascinated archaeologists for centuries, ever since the invasion of Egypt by Napoleon Bonaparte in 1798. Curiosity is fuelled by the complexity of preserving a human body for eternity: 70 days of preparation, hundreds of metres of linen and an intimate knowledge of human anatomy.

But there's another reason why mummies capture our imagination: because what we can't see intrigues us. Who was that masked man or women and what lies behind the wrappings? Mystique is a mummy's magic.

So what happens when the mask is lifted? A museum in Sweden is developing programmes to allow visitors to virtually "unwrap" mummies in their collection - using photographs and X-ray images assembled and printed with 3D printers. Curators hope to share the technology with other museums around the world. Elna Nord, producer of the exhibition at the Medelhavsmuseet in Stockholm, says the digital mummies will become "stronger mediators of knowledge of our past".

Perhaps she's correct. But as in so many things, it is the unknown that captivates. Peeking behind the curtain, or under the linen, may be tempting. Yet not everything is made better by unwrapping it.