Mummies: Back from the Dead

Archaeologists rediscover how to store dead bodies ancient Egyptian-style.

By Morgen Peck|Monday, October 15, 2007
RELATED TAGS: ARCHAEOLOGY

Bodies donated to science generally serve as interactive textbooks for the next generation of doctors, providing them one litigation-free chance to let their spectacles fall into a patient's thoracic cavity. But some corpses go beyond the call of duty. Among these, one corpse at the University of Maryland School of Medicine particularly stands out. Thirteen years ago, the donor—then a man in his seventies—died of a stroke, and the body was handed over to Bob Brier, an Egyptologist at Long Island University, and Ronald Wade, director of the Maryland State Anatomy Board. After removing and pickling all the organs except the heart, Brier and Wade buried the body under hundreds of pounds of natron (basically baking soda and salt) for 30 days to dehydrate it. Once they removed the clumps of soggy natron, Brier and Wade sprinkled the desiccated body with frankincense and myrrh. What they ended up with looks a lot like a Hollywood monster, and indeed, it is the first authentic Egyptian-style mummy created in over 2,000 years.

Brier and Wade took great pains to try to authentically recreate the ancient Egyptian process of mummification, with Brier reciting sacred prayers as they wrapped the body tightly in straps of linen. If the ancient incantations worked, the man’s spirit has long since passed through the treacherous Egyptian underworld and united with his eternal body in the afterlife, where he can now gaze down at his shriveled mortal remains. No doubt he would be proud of what he saw: The "thoroughly modern mummy," as Brier and Wade call it, has helped to decrypt the long-lost Egyptian mummification procedure and provided an invaluable guide for scientists who handle the remains of ancient humans.

Until Brier and Wade discovered the technique, no one was quite sure how the Egyptians had so successfully preserved their dead—nor had anyone really tried for over 2,000 years. Although Herodotus had penned a rough outline of the gruesome ritual in his Histories, the priests and embalmers who actually performed it left no record of their trade. According to Brier, it was almost as if no one thought it was possible to learn more. “When I started going to Egypt, I realized that nobody really knew how mummification took place,” he says. “Nobody was talking about it. So that’s how I realized that you really have to do a mummification to figure it out.”

There were plenty of questions to answer. Can you get all the organs out through a small incision in the belly? Do you have to drain the blood? And, perhaps most challenging, how do you remove the brain? Brier had examined hundreds of mummies in the past and X-rayed their bones to try to reverse engineer the things, but ultimately it took some confident improvisation to guide him in removing the hard-to-reach organ. After trying and failing to pull the brain through the nose with a hook, Brier and Wade decided to use a bit more force. “What we had to do is put in a long coat-hanger-like instrument and kept twirling it around and around and around . . . so we broke down the brain, liquefied it first. Then we inverted the cadaver and it ran out the nose,” explains Brier.

The next step in their experiment was to wait and watch. “The mummy has been at room temperature for [almost] 15 years, and there’s been no sign of decay at all. So we think we have it right,” Brier says. But that wasn't the end of the body's story. Instead, the researchers donated to science a second time: They offer the mummy up to other scientists who want to practice research techniques for use on actual ancient mummies. Whereas the pharaohs sought eternal peace through mummification, this modern mummy will likely have scientists poking at it for decades.

Brier and Wade generously distribute tissue samples for all kinds of research. This year, bone samples from the modern mummy helped Angelique Corthals, a biomedical Egyptologist from the University of Manchester in England, determine the best way to isolate DNA from ancient specimens. She was particularly interested in working on a mummy that many suspect to be the remains of Queen Hatshepsut, the most powerful of only four female pharaohs. The Supreme Council of Antiquities in Egypt was looking for someone to isolate nuclear DNA from the mummy (a very difficult feat that had never been done) and confirm its identity by comparing the DNA with samples from other mummies thought to be Hatshepsut’s father and grandmother. But they needed someone they could trust. “When you extract tissue from a mummy, you have to be very careful because the curators will obviously not want to have their mummies destroyed,” Corthals says.

Corthals experimented with samples from the modern mummy and found she could retrieve plenty of DNA from the bones but nothing useful in the skin or other tissues. That was enough to convince the council to let Corthals go to work on the would-be Hatshepsut. Soon after, Corthals found herself in a sterile room boring a biopsy needle deep into the skeleton of one of Egypt’s greatest historical treasures while the antiquities police peered at her anxiously through a window.

The modern mummy “helped in refining protocols of extraction and also in pointing out which places in the body were the best to retrieve the most amount of DNA,” says Corthals. Her work this year has yielded the first examples of nuclear DNA from an Egyptian mummy and strong preliminary evidence that the lost queen of Egypt has been found.

The thoroughly modern mummy has proved to be persistently popular. Brier boasts that he gets requests for tissue samples from scientists “all over the world” for all kinds of projects. He and Wade return to the body at least once a year to take samples and see how well it’s holding up over time. It’s certainly a lot of interruptions for a mummy that’s trying to fall into the rhythm of eternity, but for an unusually productive body donor, it’s just the price of fame.

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