The Science of Mummies

What You Need



The Science of Mummies Photo Credit: Clipart.com


To explore how new advancements in technology can lead to advancements in scientific knowledge, and specifically how new technologies are advancing the study of mummies.


When approaching the idea of old scientific views changing through new technology, it helps to consider how students view the scientific world. While high-school students may often describe scientists as "brilliant" and "essential to the world," they traditionally view the life of a scientist to be boring and unrewarding. This may be more the application of an unfair stereotype than a factual observation based on students' personal experience.

Scientists share the exciting task of advancing human understanding of the universe around us—and that sometimes means changing long-held views. According to recent studies, many students think that changes come mainly through facts and improved observational and measuring technology. However, they often do not make the distinction that advancements or changes can come from both new observations or reinterpreting old observations.

After middle school, students should understand that scientific experiments are actually tests of ideas—not just a matter of trying things out to see what happens. Sometimes students don't realize that evidence generated by a sound scientific experiment should be interpreted with the greatest care. The scientist cannot make subjective inferences about what occurs; rather he or she must be careful to apply the highest standard of traditional scientific logic when developing a theoretical argument. However, sometimes groundbreaking advances spring forth from the very unscientific elements of pure luck and human imagination.

According to some research, students tend to pair the ideas of science and technology together. When asked to make a distinction, science is often viewed in a positive way, as a means of helping society. Technology is often viewed in a negative light, as if it is the source of pollution or things like nuclear weapons. Therefore, students may understand that science advances technology, but often students fail to recognize technology's positive impact on science.

Planning Ahead

Print and duplicate the three student sheets that are part of this lesson. To use these sheets, you will divide the class into three groups, with one student sheet per group.

If you have limited computer access, preview the lesson and the Secrets of the Pharaohs website. Print out and duplicate the pages you will use.


Start the Motivation section of the lesson by writing the phrase “Science and Technology” on the board. Underline the phrase and ask students to tell you what they think of when they hear the sentence, "What is science and technology, anyway?"Now write “Science” and “Technology” separately on the board and ask students to make a distinction when they offer related ideas. Do their answers fit the research pattern—do they view science mostly as helping society and technology mostly as hurting society?

Remind students that scientific thought has evolved over centuries, and that, today, its foundation still rests on traditional core values like “evidence, logic, and good arguments.” Tell students that scientists are forever charged with the responsibility to move scientific understanding forward, sometimes updating or disproving old theories and sometimes making striking discoveries by luck, chance, or by using an informed imagination.

Begin a discussion about archeology by pointing out how new technologies are creating new opportunities to learn about a very old subject: mummies!

Ask students:

  • What images do mummies bring to mind?
  • Why do you think mummies exist?
  • How do you think that scientists find mummies?
  • What would you like to know about a mummy's life centuries ago?
  • What methods do you think scientists use to gather evidence and answer those questions?


Begin this part of the lesson by asking students to form three groups before getting online and going to the Secrets of the Pharoahs website.

If you have a large class, you may wish to form six groups and have two groups work on each section. (Pass out copies of the relevant pages if you don't have enough computers.)

Ask all students to read the introductory page of the website. To pique student interest, ask (but don’t answer) the following questions:

  • Do you think that "remote sensing" technology might help to find buried tombs?
  • Do you think that modern medical techniques can tell us anything about someone who's been dead for centuries?
  • Do you think that we can extract DNA from a mummy?

Accept all student answers to these questions. The important thing is that students start to think about the use of modern technology to help us find answers about the past.

Now distribute copies of the three student sheets attached to this lesson. Each group will use a different student sheet. Tell students that each of the groups will use a page in the website to investigate how new technology has changed the study of a particular evidence-gathering technique. The group investigation subjects are Mass Spectrometry, Extracting Mummy DNA, and Studying Ancient Disease.

Ask students to read over their student sheets. Answer any questions that they have and tell them to begin. Each individual student in the group should fill out a student sheet.

After students collect their answers, each group will present its findings to the class and discuss its findings.

Ask students:

  • Why do you think scientists are so careful in their studies?
  • What technology did you find most surprising?
  • In what ways might this new technology advance the understanding of a mummy that was found 100 years ago?
  • Why should anyone care about what life was like so long ago?


Now ask students to read and discuss the final section of the website, Limits of the New Science.

Ask students:

  • According to Dr. Hawass, how much of ancient Egypt remains buried? (70 percent.)
  • How do satellites help to find buried structures? (They beam microwaves that detect the changes in density of hidden ground objects.)
  • How is radar used? (Ground-penetrating radar waves can detect the anomalies of buried ancient structures.)
  • When discussing his work, what is Dr. Hawass's view on the usefulness of new technologies? (Dr. Hawass believes that, in spite of advances, a workman with a shovel is still the most effective means of finding new discoveries.)

Be sure that students discuss how technology has improved the study of ancient civilizations.


CyberMummy is an interesting website from the University of Illinois at Urbana that details the study of a mummy the university acquired from an antiques dealer.

Archaeological Geophysics is a site that shows how surface geophysics methods are used to find objects like buried walls and other evidence.

Radiocarbon Dating for Archaeology details how radiocarbon dating is used to determine the age of artifacts.

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