Unwrapping secret of mummy, dearest

Unreal: The `Mummy Road Show' gets the inside scoop on the Peruvian Amazon.

January 21, 2002|By Arthur Hirsch | Arthur Hirsch,SUN STAFF

"There's something very mysterious about a mummy head in a box," says Dick Horne, co-owner of the American Dime Museum.

Who would argue the point? Especially once you know that Horne in his day has known a mummy or two from the inside out. He makes them from a bit of this and that, secret materials and methods he declines to discuss. Even a mummy maven like Horne, however, has been stumped as to the true nature of the giant Peruvian Amazon she-mummy lying in a glass case just inside his museum's front door. Until now.

The latest word in mummy-sussing arrived recently at the American Dime Museum in the form of the National Geographic Channel's Mummy Road Show. Hosts Ronald Beckett and Gerald Conlogue and crew spent a week at the museum this summer, taping for the season's final episode, which will air tonight, with repeats on Jan. 26 and 27. (In Baltimore proper, alas, the National Geographic Channel is not carried on standard cable service and can be seen only via satellite dish.)

Launched in October, the Mummy Road Show features Beckett and Conlogue running from pillar to post examining mummies. They've looked at mummies in the United States, South America, Egypt and Italy. They don't just look, of course, they really look, in much the way a medical doctor would examine a patient.

Both men are professors at Quinnipiac University in Hamden, Conn., and authorities on medical diagnostic imaging techniques - Beckett in endoscopy, Conlogue in radiology. Together they founded the Bioanthropology Research Institute at the university, which consists largely of the sort of boxy truck you might see running a wholesale bread route, only this one is filled with mobile mummy-examination gear.

The idea is that each mummy is something of a conundrum waiting to be "unwrapped," as it were. How was the corpse preserved? What does that say about the culture in which the remains were prepared? What do the remains tell about how the person lived and died?

In August, they made the six-hour haul down to Baltimore in pursuit of the mystery of the Peruvian Amazon that's been a feature attraction of the small museum on Maryland Avenue. The American Dime Museum, which opened in November 1999, celebrates the aesthetics of the sideshow and its 19th-century ancestors: small museums of the strange and exotic.

Mummies - real and fake - were a standard sideshow feature in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. The American Dime Museum has several, all "fake" in the sense that they're not actual human remains, but authentic in that they represent what you might have seen at an old sideshow or dime museum.

Seeing as how the Mummy Road Show has done episodes in which the authenticity of a mummy is in doubt, the hosts figured it would make sense to examine a known dummy mummy.

"It was in the spirit of the show," says Nord Wennerstrom, who does public relations for the National Geographic Channel.

Conlogue knew about the American Dime Museum, as he had met Horne a few years ago when someone asked Conlogue to X-ray a head made by Horne, who picked up some of his mummy-making skills at the Maryland Institute College of Art. Horne says he told the buyer it wasn't an actual mummified head, but still the collector wanted it checked out.

"I'm carrying on the tradition of these guys who made them," says Horne.

The provenance of the Peruvian Amazon is not entirely mysterious. Horne and his partner, James Taylor, bought it from a guy in Virginia who had it in his garage for who knows how long. The mummy was probably made between 1910 and 1920 and sold by the Nelson Supply Co. in Boston, one of several purveyors of such items.

Companies made all sorts of mummies for sideshow operators. The competition could be fierce, and you couldn't expect to draw much of a crowd by displaying some standard-issue Egyptian mummy. Heck, according to the National Geographic Society, these things were so common in the 19th century that in Egypt they were using mummies as fuel for locomotives.

"So it paid you to have a giant mummy," Taylor says on the Mummy Road Show. "It paid you to have a two-headed mummy. It paid you to have a mother and child mummy. You always want the most outrageous, the most amazing, the most fantastic sort of presentation you can give people."

The Peruvian giantess stretches about 9 feet from head to toe, preserved more poorly than some mummies you see but better than others. Not so much is left of the "flesh," but the frame suggests a formidable presence.

Beckett and Conlogue give her the sort of going over you could only manage with a top-drawer medical benefits plan. First they shoot Polaroid X-rays, using a technique Conlogue developed that was considered a breakthrough in mummyology. He created the mobile X-ray processing method for a remote archaeological site in Peru, making it possible to use X-rays without immediate access to cumbersome photo-processing equipment.

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