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"?

Ron: No, and I don't think Jerry does either. Some mummies do get fungal growths on them, though, so you do have to be careful [handling them].

So what does it feel like to touch the mummies? Do they smell?

Ron: Actually, the smell is a very important point. It is information you can collect. Many mummies smell a bit musty. There was one mummy that smelled different, smelled "clean." Well, it turned out, from Jerry's x-rays, that it was preserved differently than the rest. So the sense of smell is important, but there is no revolting odor. The mummies are typical pretty dry and stiff bodies.

Are there are any health concerns related to what you do? Aren't you worried about breathing in dust particles and bacteria that might make you ill?

Ron: We are cautious, yes, but we are not fanatical.

Jerry: You might notice in the episode involving Hazel that when we were bringing her into a hospital, we covered her with plastic wrap, because it's a place where there are patients who are sick and may have not have functioning immune systems.

What happens to the mummy bodies after you investigate them?

Ron: For the Peruvian mummies, they go back into storage. For the mummies in museums, they go back to where they were. A lot of them aren't even on display—they are in back rooms because people are becoming more sensitive about reviewing remains. It is important [to properly preserve mummies] because once a mummy is removed, for example, in Peru, from the ground, depending on how they are maintained there may be some deterioration. Bog bodies come out wet and if they aren't put in the right type of conditions, they will dry out.

What drew you to the study of mummies and what keeps you interested?

Jerry: I think for me it's because I teach imaging, and for the past 30 years I have really looked at ways to take medical techniques out of the hospital and apply them to other areas. The study of mummies gives me that option. In 1986 I was asked if I would be interested in doing a series of images on the "soap lady mummy" to determine the condition of the body, and it just took off. There are literally thousand of mummies everywhere, so I don't have to worry about ever running out of subjects.

At an institute that Ron and I founded several years ago, the Bioanthropology Research Institute at Quinnipiac University, we look at populations of mummies and can then calculate something called prevalence, or how common a particular disease or pathology was in that population. It is important to know this because we can relate those diseases to the same diseases that affect people today. You can start to make some general conclusions on the general health of the population. So even though in the series we may only focus on one or two mummies, our work requires us to analyze entire populations. That is what holds my attention now—looking at diseases in the past without destroying the mummy. It is almost like a mystery you are trying to solve every time you examine a mummy.

Ron: For me, I think there is that natural curiosity. People often ask Jerry and I what our favorite mummies are. And quite frankly, every time we think we find a favorite mummy, we go to do a different story and that becomes our new favorite. That is what I find exciting. We also have to adapt our techniques each time, which is challenging. It keeps us on our toes.

You have a lot of fun in your show. Do you have the same kind of style when you teach your classes, and overall when you do scientific research?

Ron: Absolutely! If we had a hidden agenda with the show—and our students could attest to this—it is that we try to make learning fun. It is not intentional, it is just that we enjoy what we do. Science can be fun. Too often science is portrayed as boring, dry, and almost condescending. And it is not. Science is accessible. And that is our hidden agenda. So yes, we treat our students and science in the same way. Actually, we have both been accused of having excessive happiness.

Jerry: One of the things that is nice about this series—and it's the reason we work with the Engel brothers—is that we have a game plan when we get to a mummy, but, if you watch the program, [you see] we have to modify our schedules several times. And that is what life is all about—problem solving. All too often in the past, what we have been subjected to are documentaries of how research is well defined and people go out and are looking for this and they find it and the whole thing is wrapped up in 30 minutes or an hour.

But in actuality, every time we start one of these episodes, it takes on a life of its own. We have failures, we have to come back and fix whatever problem we encountered. There is a lot of problem solving, and that is what life is all about. It's important for people to see that. The producers let us make our mistakes, but in the end I think we are relatively successful in getting the idea across that learning can be fun.

You have access to a lot of hi-tech equipment, but what kinds of limitations do you still face in doing your mummy investigations?

Ron: I think the limitations are dictated by the environment and resources we have available to us. We can travel with certain instrumentation that can give us a limited amount of data or information. We may not always have access to something that can take us to another level. But when Jerry takes his x-ray or the endoscope, sometimes we don't need more sophisticated technology. The endoscope is a poor man's CT [CAT scan] unit—if there is an opening, we can gain access to those things [inside the body] and get a three-dimensional field. The techniques we use complement each other, and often, if we do get a CT, it confirms things we have collected just with the x-ray or endoscope. But certainly, the CT is more sensitive in picking up variations in densities and tissues.

What have been some of your most unusual assignments?

Jerry: The mummy we did in Popoli, Italy. I had to assemble the x-ray apparatus in the tomb, and there was only about 40 to 45 inches (102 to 114 centimeters) to the ceiling of the tomb. Logistically it was very difficult. Another unusual assignment was the last one we did, the bog mummies in Assen, Netherlands, because they had been in this acid environment and all the minerals had been sucked out of the bones. It was like trying to x-ray someone's leather jacket. There was hardly anything there. We did a CT and the sheet on the table was as dense as the mummy. So it was like folded paper.

Ron: For me, I think some of the unusual findings have been lizard eggs inside the mummified monk we investigated. They were in the eye socket, brain case, and throat. It was fascinating! He is an apartment house for these little lizards.

Why is the "Unwanted Mummy" episode airing on April 1 being featured as a special program?

Ron: It is unique in that this mummy [Hazel Farris] was going to be destroyed and cremated, and she had an opportunity to teach us so much. Jerry's preliminary x-rays and CT scans showed there were diseases inside this individual. We attempted some initial endoscopy, and she was rigid and hard inside, which is very unusual. So we talked to the mummy's keeper and convinced her that if she was going to destroy this mummy, it would be really beneficial to get as much information from this individual as we could and see if the legend surrounding Hazel Farris was true or not. Fortunately, [the keeper] agreed, and since the autopsy was a success, there were some interesting determinations, which will be revealed on the show.

Jerry: Another interesting thing about Hazel is that she was missing a finger from a traumatic amputation. Since Hazel was a sideshow mummy, to make her story better they embellished her past, saying that she shot five men before accidentally shooting off her finger. We wanted to find what was true about Hazel's past. We will probably never know who Hazel really was, but she is from a period of 1890 and was an individual that came from a certain sect of the population. Because we did an autopsy on Hazel, we were able to answer a few mysteries.

Join a live AOL chat with Ron and Jerry on Wednesday, March 27, at 9 p.m. EST.

A one-hour special of The Mummy Road Show, "An Unwanted Mummy," will air Monday, April 1, at 9 p.m. on the National Geographic Channel.

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