UM scientists wind up a job: Our mummy is a mummy

June 26, 1994|By Michael Ollove | Michael Ollove,Sun Staff Writer

It's a wrap.

Researchers working at the University of Maryland School of Medicine completed an Egyptian-style mummification yesterday of a Baltimore area man when they swaddled his body head to toe in 100 yards of linen. It appears to be the first time in at least 1,800 years that a human being has been mummified using ancient Egyptian techniques.

"We are seeing a pretty good replica of what the ancient embalmer would have seen 2,000 years ago," said Bob Brier, a professor of ancient philosophy at C. W. Post University in New Yorkwhose unlikely, 15-year dream of performing an Egyptian mummification has been realized. The wrapping of the mummy -- a 76-year-old man who died last spring and left his body to science -- was far less problematic to Dr. Brier than what occurred earlier in the day.

For the previous 35 days, the body was covered and surrounded by 600 pounds of powdered natron, a naturally occurring salt used to dry the body -- to turn the man into a mummy.

Yesterday was the first opportunity for Dr. Brier and his partner, Ronald S. Wade, head of the anatomical services division at the medical school, to see if the natron had done its job. Dr. Brier, as anxious as an expectant father at the start of the day, was all smiles by midday. Aside from a slight amount of "putrefaction" in the lower back, the body was dehydrated. It was cured.

"Our mummy is a mummy," Dr. Brier pronounced.

Although other civilizations have performed mummifications, the Egyptians were one of the few to use artificial means to dry the cadaver. They also may have been the only culture to remove internal organs, a procedure Dr. Brier, 50, and Mr. Wade, 45, replicated during the first stage of the mummification last month.

Egyptologists do not remember any modern attempt to use Egyptian techniques to mummify a human body, although there were some mummification experiments on animals.

The natron was swept and shoveled away yesterday revealing a cadaver that was leathery brown and almost skeletally thin -- both the result of the moisture having been drawn from the body. The man weighed about 70 pounds, much less than half his weight at the time of death. He also emitted an unpleasant, acrid smell that forced Dr. Brier and Mr. Wade to wear surgical masks with their surgical scrubs.

Dr. Brier said that the mummy, whose identity is being kept secret, already looks much like its ancient predecessors, although not yet as emaciated or inflexible.

After the man's uncovering, he was transported several blocks from the Gray Laboratory building to a laboratory in the basement of the medical school. There, overlooked by a skeleton in one corner, the body was stuffed with wood shavings to help keep its shape and rubbed with oil. It was then wrapped in the linen, some of it bearing Egyptian drawings.

With curiosity, if not awe, Egyptologists and others fascinated by ancient Egypt have been following the Baltimore mummification.

"It's a very clever thing to do," said Rita Freed, curator of the Department of Ancient Egyptian, Nubian and Near Eastern Art at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts, which has about 30 mummies in its collection. "I don't think many would have the courage to do it."

Ancient Egyptians did not leave detailed descriptions on how to perform a mummification. Most information came from the recorded observations of Herodotus, the Greek historian who traveled to Egypt, and from scattered hieroglyphics and artifacts found in ancient tombs. Much has also been learned in recent years by using modern advances, such as X-rays and CAT scans, to study ancient mummies.

Dr. Freed said some practical matters remain a mystery. For example, no one has known precisely how the Egyptians removed brains. It was also not certain whether they used natron in a liquid or powdered form. In the absence of historical records and artifacts, the best way to answer some of these questions, Dr. Freed said, may be through Dr. Brier's hands-on approach.

But that opinion is not universally shared.

"I think it's macabre, and I do think it's tasteless, and I don't think there's a great deal of scientific value," said Betsy Bryan, an Egyptologist at the Johns Hopkins University.

Others say the project raises a moral question: Is a mummification an appropriate use for a body donated for medical research?

"It strikes me as ethically questionable," said Mark Hanson of the Hastings Center, a research institution in New York concerned with ethical issues in medicine and science. "A donation to an anatomy service should not be a blank check for any kind of experimentation."

But in a written statement Friday, Donald E. Wilson, dean of Maryland's medical school, defended the project:

"As a major research institution dedicated to developing new knowledge, we also have a commitment to verifying the old," Dr. Wilson said. "This represents a unique opportunity to provide information about an ancient process lost to mankind."

The dean would not allow The Sun to take photographs of yesterday's activities. Dr. Brier and Mr. Wade plan to keep the mummy for some time, perhaps years. They hope to be able to exhibit it. More important, they want to continue to conduct tests see how it changes. Dr. Brier is convinced that the body will continue to dry. "He will become a better mummy. In 50 years, he's going to be in a lot better shape than I will be."

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