Researchers who spend their time burying pigs in bogs and then measuring how far they travel in an aqueous environment? Doctors who make cadavers into mummies? Art historians who lose themselves in esoteric details painted on red shrouds from the Roman Period in Egypt?
Welcome to the bizarre world of mummy science, a discipline that claimed me in 1989 when I was given my one and only opportunity to work on an Egyptian mummy at our local Spurlock Museum. Mission: to find out everything we could about a 2,000 year old dead body without unwrapping it for a museum exhibit nine months later. My job: to recruit art historians, archaeologists, radiologists, physicians, bug experts, and anyone else I could think of who could help us—preferably by donating analyses and lab time in exchange for publicity—to tell the mummy’s story.
Egyptian mummy, ca. 100 AD
(photo by Bill Wiegand UI News Bureau)
So many memories. Going to my husband’s place of work (a local hospital) with the mummy for a CT scan, carefully scheduled for 5 pm because, “Sarah, we must give preference to live people on this expensive equipment.” Listening to the doctor’s argue about the sex of the mummy: “I see a penis, it’s a boy.” “No that’s the kid’s thumb.” “Okay, you have a 50% chance of being right.” Seeing the most recent CT scan converted to a 3-D image of jaw and teeth, with conclusive proof that the mummy is a child who died at the age of about 8 years old...
My husband named the mummy “Lazarus” because he/she kept coming back into our lives, first as the subject of many dinnertime conversations, then visits to my children’s schools (Sarah as “the Mummy Mommy”), next as the subject of my first mystery novel Bound for Eternity, and finally as the excuse to attend two international conferences: one at the gorgeous Getty Museum villa museum in Malibu, California, the second a few year later at a World Congress on Mummy Studies at a Catholic campus in San Diego.
At the first conference on Red Shroud Mummies (the group of about ten Roman-period mummies all presumably wrapped in the same embalming studio using expensive and exotic ingredients), the focus was all Egyptian archaeology, art history, and medicine. We discussed the Getty’s study of the red pigment, a type of lead oxide found only at a Roman silver mine in Rio Tinto, Spain, and the chemistry of embalming fluids. An art historian from Greece gave each speaker a kit of encaustic painting materials (beeswax and ground pigments) used to make mummy portraits (I still need to unpack that kit and use it). A chemist from Bristol, England, discussed the chemistry of embalming fluids—amazing how much those Egyptians knew about preserving the human body!
But it was the San Diego conference that really blew me away. Not only were the papers jaw-droppingly fascinating (for example, the “piggies in peat” study mentioned earlier, in which pig bodies were substituted for humans to study preservation in a bog environment), but the reception was unforgettable. At the San Diego Museum of Man, the human cadaver preserved with ancient Egyptian methods and materials by Bob Brier and Ron Wade was front and center: its display case was right in the middle of the reception area. Mummy researchers from around the world gathered, with their wine glasses, to mingle and gaze at the wrapped dead body.
My most recent short story, Death on Display, is a (fictional) tribute to that last experience: “An archaeologist and physician recreate an Egyptian mummy using a modern cadaver and ancient embalming methods. Then they put the finished mummy on display at an international conference reception...what could possibly go wrong?”
For more on mummies, visit themummyblogspot.com.