Mr. Mummy Speaks!
World-renowned Egyptologist unlocks secrets of the sacrcophogus and explains undying fascination with the ancients' "undead."
by MaryAlice Bitts-Jackson
November 28, 2012
It’s just another day at the office for renowned Egyptologist Bob Brier, affectionately known as “Mr. Mummy.” Photo Source: Pat Remler/www.archeology.org.
If you want to learn about a famous battle led by Pharoh Ramses III, you'll have no problem at all. A papyrus documenting that event is remarkably detailed, declaring not only the precise number of casualties but also the names of the horses that pulled Ramses' chariot.
That's typical of ancient-Egyptian record-keepers, who routinely preserved the minutiae of their accomplishments, systems and daily lives. But when it came time to document how to mummify a cadaver—the singular aspect of Egyptian culture that has fascinated centuries of laymen and scholars the world over—the scribes were surprisingly, well, mum. Wall and tomb carvings documented some aspects of the burial and preparation ceremonies and the tools that may have been used but revealed little about the mechanics of the process.
"I guess it was a trade secret," says celebrated Egyptologist and philosophy professor Bob Brier, who was vexed by the unanswered questions that lingered, such as whether blood was drained, what tools were needed and how much dehydrating compound was used. So he decided to retrace the Egyptians' steps.
As a result, Brier became the first person in 2,000 years to mummify a human cadaver using the exact techniques and materials the ancient Egyptians had perfected. What he and research partner Robert Wade learned during that 1994 experiment shed considerable light on a centuries-old mystery that has fueled the imaginations of the world's students and scholars alike.
On Thursday, Dec. 6, Brier will describe his experiences and findings during a public lecture, Mummification: Resurrection of an Ancient Art. The event is presented by the archaeology department and sponsored by the Archaeological Institute of America's South Pennsylvania Society.
Trial and error
Brier prepared for the project by gleaning as much information as he could about mummification tools and practices from original sources such as tomb paintings. Then he commissioned artisans to craft exact replicas of the instruments as pictured, using authentic techniques and materials. Next, he was off to Egypt to harvest natron, a dehydrating agent found naturally in the ground, and frankincense and myrrh, which the ancients used to perfume the mummies' rawhide-like skin.
As a National Geographic film crew chronicled his progress, Brier harvested 400 pounds of the salt-and-baking-powder-like natron compound at a spot the ancients favored. He tested it on-site to ensure that the substance remained pure. Then he brought it back to a lab at the University of Maryland Medical School, filming crew in tow.
Brier performed the mummification carefully, extracting the brain through the cadaver's nostrils and using a stone blade to make a small incision through which the organs would pass. As he worked, he learned which of the historian's assumptions about the process and the tools had been incorrect and which were spot on. The ancients' trade secret, kept for thousands of years, had been revealed.
Brier's groundbreaking project provided perfect footage for National Geographic's compelling documentary Mr. Mummy, which, in turn, supplied a memorable moniker for the man. And Brier, who enters his 33rd year of teaching philosophy and Egyptology at Long Island University Post, did not stop there. Since 2004 he's published several books and has advanced a theory that King Tut was murdered in 1336 B.C. by his prime minister. His research found a wider audience when the Discovery Channel and TLC aired television specials about his work investigating the three "wise men" of Christian lore, the Medici dynasty and Pharaoh Ramses III.
This level of coverage indicates that Brier's work taps a well-established fascination that spans centuries and continents. Asked to pinpoint the reason for this age-old fixation, Maria Bruno, assistant professor of archaeology and anthropology, floats two simple theories.
"We have a very different relationship with death and the dead than did the ancient Egyptians and other societies who mummified," says Bruno, who researches ancient South American cultures, in which loved ones may take mummified loved ones out of their tombs for special occasions to include them in the celebration. "Perhaps we also just have a great appreciation and fascination with the technical knowledge some of these ancient cultures possessed."
But for those like Bruno and Brier whose life work is to study them, mummies serve a practical function: supplying a treasure trove of information about an intriguing, long-gone civilization. And centuries after their death, they continue to instruct us.
"Mummies are little encyclopedias," Brier likes to say, noting that much of what we know about the ancient Egyptians' culture and daily lives arises, directly or indirectly, out of what they believed about life after death. "You've just got to know how to read them."