Magazine article History Today

The Making of a Modern Mummy

Magazine article History Today

The Making of a Modern Mummy

Article excerpt

When Mr M, an elderly

Baltimore man, died of

heart failure in 1994 he

donated his body to science.

Like Rameses the Great, the

Egyptian Pharaoh who died in

1225 BC, his passing was

treated with all due reverence.

Both were annointed with oils

and spices, and carefully

wrapped in linen shrouds upon

which were written farewell

messages in hieroglyphics.

But where Rameses,

responsible for building the great

temple of Abu Simbel, had

Anubis, Egyptian god of the

dead, watching as he was

prepared, annointed and

wrapped, Mr M's preservation

was supervised by two American

scholars: Egyptologist Bob Brier,

chairman of the Philosophy

Department at Long Island

University, and Ronald Wade,

director of Anatomical Services

at the University of Maryland

School of Medicine.

Their purpose, according to

Wade, was to gain an

understanding of the embalming

process by recreating the

procedure exactly. `We pieced

together all the clues until we

finally we came up with the

answer ... just like a detective

story', added Brier. For,

although many Egyptian

mummies have been unwrapped

and X-rayed, the ritual has

remained a secret known only to

the priests who carried out the


The Greek historian Herodotus,

who visited Egypt around

450 BC, did describe in graphic

terms the use of a sharp black

stone to slice open the abdomen

and the method of removing the

brain through the nose. But even

this description, translated by

early Egyptologists, falls short in

some important details. So,

when Mr M died and facilities at

the University School of Medicine

were made available, the

researchers were able to begin

their experiment to make a

thoroughly modern mummy.

For Brier, it was the

culmination of research into

mummification which began

fifteen years earlier, when he

commissioned a metalsmith to

make replicas of ancient

Egyptian tools using the same

formula as the ancient Egyptians.

He had ceramic (Canopic) jars

made to contain human organs.

In Arizona, Brier found a man

who could shape a surgical knife

from obsidian, a chunk of black

volcanic lava resembling bottle


Eventually, when news came

through that their donor corpse

was ready, Brier travelled to

Egypt to gather oils, spices, linen

and 600 lbs of natron, a natural

salt-like compound, used by the

Egyptians to dehydrate and

preserve bodies. This was

obtained, as in the days of the

Pharaohs, from the shores of

Wadi Natrun, a dry lake between

Cairo and Alexandria.

Mummification of Mr M began

in May 1994. The body was

eviscerated using the obsidian

stone to make a five-inch incision

in the abdomen. `it made a clean,

sharp cut' said Brier, `and, with

the exception of the heart, all

the organs were removed and

placed in jars. The cavities were

then rinsed with sweet-smelling

palm wine, myrrh and

frankincense and packed with

bags of natron to dry the corpse

from the inside out.'

This was a vital step, as

the ancient embalmers had

discovered 300 years earlier;

without water, bacteria cannot

grow and tissue remains intact. …

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