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Making a Modern Mummy

Two Egyptologists resurrect a 4,000-year-old tradition--and it works!

By Wendy Marston
Mar 1, 2000 6:00 AMNov 12, 2019 6:27 AM


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The first mummy, it is said, was the god Osiris--brother and husband of Isis--who was slain and dismembered by his brother Seth. The pieces of Osiris's body were then distributed throughout Egypt. But Isis retrieved them, pieced them back together, and wrapped them in linen. Thus revived, Osiris resumed his life, but because of his death and rebirth, he reigned as sovereign of the dead, one of the most revered and powerful deities.

And the last mummy, it may someday be said, is a man who died in Baltimore in 1994 of a heart attack. His name is not public knowledge. He left this life in his seventies. By now, his mummifiers imagine, this man has already approached Osiris and been deemed worthy. One of his mummifiers is Ronn Wade, director of the Maryland State Anatomy Board and director of the Anatomical Service Division of the University of Maryland. He is in charge of finding and allotting to medical schools the bodies of those who donate themselves to science. Offices at the University of Maryland have been Wade's domain for 27 years, and he hurries through underground corridors efficiently, passing an unidentified body on a gurney--with only a pale toe peeking out--without a glance. More than five years ago, these quarters opened a small window onto the funerary practices of the ancient Egyptians. "I told the family it was a Ôlong-term' research project," Wade says. "They don't know that Dad's a mummy, but from my point of view, we treated him like a king."

Inside Wade's dim, windowless office stands a large Styrofoam replica of an Egyptian sarcophagus, and, but for a few replicas of human organs, the room looks as if it belonged to an Egyptologist at the British Museum. In 1994, Wade was contacted by the classical scholar Bob Brier, a professor of philosophy and Egyptology at the C.W. Post campus of Long Island University in New York. After years of studying hieroglyphs and investigating tombs, Brier had decided that his research would not be complete until he mummified--properly--a human body. The problem: where to get the body. A colleague put him in touch with Wade, who agreed to help. They became partners in a plot to re-create ancient Egyptian techniques of body preservation. As befits the person who dreamed up this project, Brier is a bit over the top when it comes to ancient Egypt. The license plate on his Jeep Cherokee reads MUMMY 1. In his apartment in the Riverdale section of the Bronx, hand-sized servant-mummy statuettes--figurines that were supposed to accompany ancient Egyptians into the afterlife--line the top shelves of his bookcases.

Once certain of their mission, Wade and Brier waited months for the perfect subject--someone who was relatively healthy and physically intact. Finally, the ideal candidate arrived: a 187-pound man in his seventies, dead after a heart attack. Following 2,000-year-old descriptions of mummifying techniques and using only replicas of ancient tools, Wade and Brier transformed the body into an Egyptian-style mummy. Five years later, their mummy retains the same physiological condition it had immediately after mummification. There is no sign of bacterial decay. The skin remains intact. Like ancient Egyptian practitioners, Brier and Wade stopped time for a corpse, and their work is likely to remain intact for thousands of years.

Although critics say the team's project was frivolous, both men insist their purpose was to understand--in real time--how and why certain procedures were accomplished. "The goal was not a mummy," Brier says sternly. "The goal was knowledge."

The Paraca Indians of Peru mummified their dead, as did the Guanches in the Canary Islands. But Egyptian mummies have always commanded the most attention, perhaps because meticulous care was given to maintaining the body and the accoutrements of the deceased. Surviving accounts of Egyptian funerals come from the Greek historians Diodorus Siculus, who traveled in Egypt between 65 and 57 b.c., and Herodotus, who visited Egypt in the fifth century b.c. From those reports we know that not all mummies were created equal. A poor man would be dispatched to the afterlife after a perfunctory mummification, either rubbed in oils or briefly covered with natron--a naturally occurring baking soda-and-salt compound--or tree resin from conifers. Both compounds drew water, essential for decay-causing bacteria, out of the body. Wrapped in single sheath of linen, the body would be laid in a hole, a cave, or even in desert sands, with sandals, a staff, a few possessions, and some amulets. Archaeologists suspect the early practice of burying the dead in the dry sand produced naturally preserved corpses and may have inspired the art of mummification. The preserved state of such bodies, scientists speculate, might have convinced the living that keeping the body intact would also protect the spirit.

Funerals for rich Egyptians were far more public and elaborate, and none more so than the pharaoh's. The death of the pharaoh was said to inaugurate a 70-day period during which normal life ceased. No sacrifices were made; everyone wept and rent their garments. Throngs sang dirges in the street, mud caked upon their heads. For 70 days, no one bathed, drank wine, made love, or ate meat. Meanwhile, the pharaoh's body was prepared and mummified.

The accounts of Herodotus and Diodorus are the only texts that describe how mummies were made. Although the Book of the Dead sounds as if it were packed with grisly secrets, it is more like a papyrus chain letter filled with rituals, magic spells, and incantations to help the dead make their way into the afterlife. Mummification, like modern undertaking, was probably a family trade, with techniques passed down from generation to generation. Wade is no stranger to this sort of artisan tradition. His father was an undertaker, as was Wade before his appointment to the Anatomy Board.

Brier and Wade were determined to answer nagging questions regarding Egyptian mummification. Why did it take 70 days? How did they remove the organs and minimize injury to the body's exterior? How was the brain removed? Removing the brain, Brier emphasizes, was the critical step--and it proved a challenge. Herodotus had described taking clumps of brain tissue out by hooking it on the end of a metal tool and lifting it out one chunk at a time. But Wade and Brier found that brain tissue wasn't dense enough to hold together for that kind of removal. "The tissue just doesn't adhere to the tool," Brier says. "It's too liquid, too moist; it won't come out. We had to put the hook in and rotate it like a whisk."

To get their technique down--and not injure the mummy's face at the same time--Brier and Wade first experimented on at least two other severed heads. "We tried a few things, like forcing water into the head cavity, but that put pressure on the eyes," Brier says. Wade recalls that they removed the top of one of the heads before they inserted the brain whisk--an eight-inch-long hooked bronze tool half as thick as a pencil--and were able to observe the path the liquefied tissue took as it churned inside the skull. From that experiment, they learned that they needed to thread the whisk up the nostril and through the olfactory tract to get it into the skull. "When we did figure the whisking out, the brain tissue poured out pink, with a little blood, like a strawberry milk shake," says Brier.

To cleanse the skull, they wound linen strips on the end of the hook and swabbed out excess tissue and moisture. Then they packed the skull with linen rubbed with frankincense--one of the seven sacred substances the ancient mummifiers used. The other sacred substances known are myrrh, cedar, lotus, and palm wine.

The next step was to extract and preserve the internal organs. (The brain, considered unimportant, was discarded.) Because ancient Egyptians believed that the dead would use their bodies in the next life, minimizing damage to the exterior was crucial. The organs had to be removed through a small three-inch cut in the abdomen. "Imagine sticking your hand inside a dark, crowded closet and untangling the clothes," marvels Wade. "You can't see anything. You have to feel your way through."

According to Herodotus, the first incision was made with a sharp "Ethiopian stone." Brier took the term to mean obsidian--a glassy black volcanic rock that can be flaked to a razor's edge. "Obsidian is sharper and thinner than any surgeon's scalpel," says Brier. "Inside the body we used bronze and copper knives, but obsidian was definitely meant for making the first slit."

Wade, the designated surgeon, then reached into the slit with a small copper knife firmly wedged between his first and second fingers so that only a few centimeters of blade peeked out. The first organs removed, Wade recalls, were the upper intestinal tract and the pancreas. Next were the spleen, kidneys, bladder, and more of the digestive tract. The intestines, he says, were tricky. "The intestine doesn't just run like a worm; it has a lot of connections to other organs. But it came out collectively, with the rest of the colon, in two sections." The stomach was next, then the liver. "That's a large, dome-shaped organ, and it's like delivering a small child through a tiny opening." Wade was forced to extend the three-inch slit by two inches.

After the liver came the lungs. "Lungs are like a wet sponge. You can compress them, so it wasn't hard to get them out," Wade says. "They're connected to the heart, so I had to cut a lot of vessels off them." For this, Wade used a bronze knife, much sharper than the copper blade.

The heart--considered the nexus of thought and soul by ancient Egyptians--was left in the rib cage. When the deceased approached Osiris in the afterlife, his heart would be weighed. If it was as light as the feather of Maat, the goddess of truth, the person was a step closer to being accepted by the gods.

As a final touch, 29 linen-wrapped packets of natron were tucked inside the body. In addition to collecting water, hastening desiccation, and absorbing foul odors, the packets helped preserve the natural contours of the body for its resurrection in the afterlife.

Now Wade and Brier placed the body on a wooden platform covered with natron and heaped more natron upon it. The spleen, liver, kidneys, lungs, and other organs were placed on ceramic platters nearby. They, too, were covered with natron. Just as salts will preserve and dry meats, the natron--580 pounds of it--would draw out the body's moisture and render the dried flesh impervious to bacteria. The platform holding the body and the other organs was put into an embalming preparation room in the basement of Wade's department and left at 90 to 107 degrees Fahrenheit. Two dehumidifiers working around the clock for 35 days would re-create the dry desert conditions of Egypt.

At midday of the thirty-fifth day, Wade and Brier opened the room containing the body. "The natron was wet," Wade remembers. "It smelled like wet sand." The white, sandy compound had clumped on top of the body and become stiff from the fluids it had absorbed. The body, originally 156 pounds with its organs removed, "now weighed 79 pounds," said Wade. "He lost 77 pounds of water."

Now it was time to remove the natron packets through the initial cut. "The incision had been drawn tight by the body's shrinking," says Wade. "I could barely get my hand in it." Brier and Wade managed to get out all but a few.

At this stage, the body had become what most people would consider a mummy. No longer was it a normal corpse. It was stiff and shrunken and blackened--an object, not a person. Wade and Brier began the beautification process. First they rubbed the skin with linen strips that had been soaked in oil containing frankincense, myrrh, cedar, lotus, and palm wine. Then they wrapped the body with linen strips, securing it with dabs of lacquer made of cedar resin. "My hands smelled of it for months," Wade recalls.

According to ancient texts, the body was supposed to be kept under natron for 35 days, and then kept around, exposed, for another 35--perhaps for a period of mourning or other religious rituals. At this stage, Brier and Wade departed from Egyptian tradition and waited 140 days to make the final preparations.

The body had lost more moisture. It now weighed about 70 pounds. This was the day to complete its linen shroud and inscribe the cloth with appropriate prayers. Each finger, toe, and limb was wrapped individually, and as each was done, Brier recited a prayer. For example, one prayer, translated by Gaston Maspero in 1875, was to be said as the head was being bandaged. It included this plea: "O doubly powerful, eternally young, and very mighty lady of the west and mistress of the east, may breathing take place in the head of the deceased in the netherworld!" Brier, an expert in hieroglyphs, says he isn't certain he pronounced the prayers correctly. Hieroglyphs contain no vowels, so Brier's pronunciation was mostly guesswork.

The last step, says Brier, was to cross the mummy's arms over its chest to re-create the pose of many Egyptian mummies. The arms, however, wouldn't stay in position. Most of the body's pliability had evaporated along with the last few pounds of water. "It was a nice surprise," Wade says wryly. Their mummy, like the mummies from the Old Kingdom, now lies with its arms at its sides. "We should have positioned it when we first got it out at day 35," Wade says. "But we never even thought of it."

Now the mummy rests three doors down from Wade's office. It has been admired by museumgoers and coveted by Egyptologists as a control for analyzing the physical conditions of ancient mummies. Forensic archaeologists can already determine if the person mummified had parasites, arthritis, or sometimes, bacterial disease. Now that they know what mummification does to the body's tissues, they can extrapolate with more accuracy the health conditions of ancients who were mummified.

Wade and Brier's mummy is slender and deceptively frail. At each shoulder and foot stands a blue-green canopic jar, each containing dried-out organs. On the breastbone sits a black scarab with an ibis upon it. Both are symbols of the rebirth of the sun. If Brier uttered the proper prayers as the final wrappings were applied, the Egypt of the afterlife may have a new, unexpected citizen.

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