Sunday, June 24, 2007

Mummies and Mysteries

Mummies are intrinsically mysterious, but modern museum practice usually discourages cutting them open and doing autopsies. And Egyptian mummy covers can be misleading—the outside does not always reflect what’s inside. As X-rays and CT scans have revealed, a face portrait of a young man or woman may hide a baboon or a jumble of bird bones.

When the mummy is human, non-destructive imaging may show the age and sex of the person inside, evidence of disease such as tooth decay and internal parasites, and special charms or amulets to protect the dead person in its travels to the afterlife. Many museums and universities have completed mummy projects—one of the best known is by a team at the University of Manchester in England.

At the University of Illinois, I was lucky enough to lead a mummy investigation on a Roman-period Egyptian mummy. Although we weren’t allowed to slice through the red and gold stucco covering, we were able to take tiny samples of textile, resins, and bones from the foot of the mummy because it was falling apart.

X-rays revealed that the mummy was a child, not an adult, and the pelvic region was too underdeveloped to determine sex. Unfortunately, our mummy had no mummy tag identifying who the child was or what family he came from, nor were we able to determine cause of death despite our high-tech investigation.

The lingering questions about the mummy led me to write my first mystery novel “Bound for Eternity” (published in 2005). Finally, I was able to satisfy my curiosity! I made the mummy child a boy, the son of a Roman wine merchant, and created a scenario for his murder. Writing the fictionalized account of our project was even more fun than writing the non-fiction book and articles—and best of all, no footnotes!

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