Down among the Dead Men; Help, Mummy, a New TV Duo Are out to Show That Archaeology Isn't Just the Preserve of White-Coated Boffins
Byline: PAUL ENGLISH reports
RON BECKETT has an important meeting with a dapper man in the Italian town of Popoli.
Nothing unusual there. As an archaeologist, Ron, and colleague Jerry Conlogue, are used to tramping the globe, meeting up with people of all persuasions in search of the truth about the way we used to live.
But it's not every day that Ron and Jerry have an appointment with a well-dressed, 400-year-old corpse. Yet that's exactly who this team of modern day Indiana Jones's meet in the first episode of new Channel 4 series The Mummy Road Show.
Hitting the road in their camper van, the wise-cracking duo are a cross between Alan Titchmarsh and Brendan Fraser's character in movie The Mummy.
In the first of the new series, the duo head to Italy with a van full of equipment, hot on the trail of newly discovered corpses in Popoli's Church of The Holy Trinity.
There, they meet Italian mummy expert Dr Gino Fornaciari, an expert in the field of paeleopathology - the study of diseases through skeletal remains.
The team are keen to investigate the contents of the church crypt, which were first discovered 10 years ago but have never been touched by scientists.
What they see blows away these seasoned globetrotters.
"I have never seen anything like this before in my life," gasps Jerry, as he peers into the newly opened crypt. "It's just incredible. Gobsmacking."
Yet, what they find isn't the type of mummy common in ancient Egypt.
There is no gold-covered sarcophagus, and no mummifying "bandages". But the remains are so well preserved - right down to the leather shoes on his feet - that if you look hard enough, you can almost see an expression on the dead man's face.
Ron explains why the corpse has remained intact after all these years.
"There are thousands of mummies all across Italy, and surrounding areas of Europe," he says. "Bacteria love moisture, but with such a dry climate - coupled with the fact that it's been inside a church crypt - the bodies dehydrate very quickly, and so there's very little decomposition.
"The bacteria don't have favourable conditions, so when a body like this is kept locked up in a crypt for years, it is likely to be preserved like a mummy."
The men set about trying to build a life for the corpse, aiming to ascertain his age, social status and how he died.
First, they deduce that only the most prominent members of society could possibly warrant burial inside the town church. So they assume that their dead friend must be a nobleman, or a holy man - possibly even a priest. To find out more, they have to get scientific.
Ron clambers into the tiny crypt, and with his endoscope - a tiny wire with a camera and grabbing tool at the end - he takes a piece of the mummy's parched lung tissue for analysis.
"This is like mining for gold in the human body," says Ron. "We need to get quite a large sample because the tissue is so dry."
But the mystery begins to unravel when Jerry sets up his X-ray machine to take shots of the bone structure. …