Secrets of The Mummy Road Show Unraveled

Rebecca Shokrian
for National Geographic News
March 27, 2002

Coffins, tombs, bones, bandages, and an x-ray machine—together, they add up to the National Geographic Channel's popular program The Mummy Road Show.

Ron Beckett and Jerry Conlogue, both professors at Quinnipiac University in Connecticut, use their scientific training and a host of non-invasive technologies to unwrap the mysteries of many different kinds of mummies around the world—ancient and not-so-ancient. They share their tales in an interview with National Geographic News.

How do you know where mummies are and decide which ones to investigate?

Ron: There is a tale in every mummy. As we always say, every mummy gives us a rare window into the past, so there really isn't one that isn't interesting. The story ideas come to us in a variety of ways. Jerry and I have a lot of colleagues out there—physical anthropologists and pathologists—who work with mummies and who sometimes ask us for x-rays or biopsies. So we say "sure," and it always ends up being a good tale. Or sometimes the Engel brothers [the TV production company] are looking through books and they find something that is interesting. They bring it to our attention and a show is taped.

When you are examining a mummy, what kinds of information or clues do you look for?

Ron: There are some basic things that we investigate such as sex, age, time of death, evidence of disease left on the bones, or in the tissues, funerary practices, and whether there are artifacts in the sarcophagus or coffin. From the initial survey, sometimes we find things that send our research objectives off in another direction. For example, a nobleman in an Italian crypt featured in the show's first season—after Jerry's x-ray survey, we found he had a kidney stone. So we directed our research efforts toward analyzing that object.

How would you respond to people who say you have no respect for the dead, even though you use non-invasive techniques?

Jerry: About two years ago I did a live Web cast from Peru, with someone in D.C. screening the phone calls. I was fortunate to get a transcript of all 500 questions that came in during the hour, and some of the callers did take that approach—that we should not be doing anything, that these individuals are dead and should be left alone. But I think we are really sensitive. Both Ron and I have strong clinical backgrounds. I was a radiographer and Ron was a respiratory therapist, so we have worked with patients and try to extend to the mummies the same kind of respect we would to our patients. We are conscious that they were alive at one time, and are also conscious that if we go to a place like Peru, [we need] to observe cultural practices. We want to be very respectful.

When you say respectful, what does that mean?

Jerry: Well, for example, when we did Hazel [a U.S. mummy featured in a segment scheduled for April 1, 2002], we left her pelvis draped. We could have removed whatever [clothing] was there, but why? We were going to x-ray her anyway. So we did things to make Hazel's owner comfortable and maintain that level of respect. You wouldn't just leave a patient naked on a stretcher, and it's the same thing with a mummy.

Ron: One thing that happens and that we hope comes through on the show is that we do have fun with our work, but we don't make fun of our work. We hope that when we're working with our mummies, that aura of respect comes through.

Do you believe there is a "mummy's curse"?

Continued on Next Page >>


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