Mr. Mummy

Unraveling Mummy Mythology

He’s known as Mr. Mummy, but Bob Brier’s love of Egypt happened rather late in life and unexpectedly. 

Brier is a Senior Research Fellow at the CW Post Campus of Long Island University. He said he had been through a couple of careers first, including chairing the philosophy department at his university. He had finished medical school and already had his Ph.D. when he had a basketball accident. 

While recuperating after surgery on both knees, a friend gave him a copy of a hieroglyph textbook called “Garden of Egyptian Grammar.” Brier said he had always loved languages and studied the text eight hours a day while he was in knee casts.

By the time rehab ended and the casts came off, Brier was able to translate hieroglyphs. It wasn’t long before his university asked him to teach hieroglyphs.  Eventually, his students told him they wanted to go to Egypt. And he took his first group to Egypt in 1974.

“I thought, ‘wow, this is really cool,” and the rest is sort of history, ancient history,” Brier said.

Brier eventually started reading books on mummies, “and because I had a little medical background, I realized that a lot of what they were talking about wasn’t quite right and there were a lot of questions that had to be answered that weren’t even being asked. That’s how I got into mummies.”

Mummies are Brier’s specialty and he travels to and from Egypt about four times a year. If an excavation finds an interesting mummy and they want him to look at it, they will bring him over. Or Brier will help if a mummy needs to be moved out of a tomb. One of the cases Brier worked to solve was “The Mystery of Unknown Man E.” After examining the mummy, he and his team were eventually able to piece together that he was probably the son of Ramesses III, who murdered his father.

 “When I started reading about mummies I realized that we don’t even know how the ancient Egyptians really did it. Every 6th grade kid can tell you they took out the brain through the nose, but you try taking out a brain through the nose. So we really wanted to figure out the nuts and bolts of how ancient Egyptians mummified. And I realized the only way to do it was really to mummify a human cadaver, so that’s what we did,” Brier said.

In 1994, Brier and colleague Ron Wade, from the University of Maryland, became the first people to mummify a human cadaver.

The two did everything in the ancient Egyptian way, from tools to materials. He went to Egypt and dug his natrum (the salt Egyptians used to dehydrate the body) in the same place ancient Egyptians had gone. Brier used bronze and copper knives and obsidian blades, the same as the Egyptians.

He said the hardest part was the brain because everybody always said that ancient Egyptians broke through the nasal passage with a long tool that looks like a coat hanger with a little hook on the end of it and they pulled the brain out. Brier said the Egyptians supposedly pulled the brain out one little piece at a time until the whole thing was out. Brier and his team tried it but found out it just didn’t work.

“Eventually, we figured out that if you push this coat hanger-like instrument in through the nasal passage and then rotate it like a kitchen whisk, you will liquefy the brain. You sort of break down the brain and then you turn the cadaver upside down and the brain runs out,” Brier said.

Brier and Wade completed the project at the University of Maryland’s Medical School. But with Wade retiring soon, the two men worried about who would take care of the mummy, so they gave it to the Museum of Man in San Diego. The mummy is currently on display at the museum along with film clips of the two men mummifying him. Brier said the two go and visit their mummy from time to time to take tissue samples and make sure nothing’s decaying.

“There has been no sign of bacterial infestation or fungi, so I think we are pretty good,” said Brier.

Brier thinks the reason Egypt pulls people into museums is the human fascination with life after death, the idea of cheating death. He said when you look at a mummy, it’s almost as if you are looking at a human being from across 3,000 years and he’s still a recognizable person.

“If you knew him when he was alive, you would recognize him. And that’s certainly the draw of the mummies. I think the entire Egyptian civilization is associated with this whole immortality thing.  And the Brooklyn Museum’s To Live Forever exhibit at the Joslyn is one that really stresses the quest for immortality. Everybody wants to be immortal and these guys almost did it,” said Brier.

Recently, Brier was at the Albany Institute of Science and Art to run cat scans on a couple of their mummies. During the process, he discovered one of the mummies had an artificial toe. Brier said he didn’t think the man used the prosthetic toe in life but thinks his family wanted him to be complete in the next world so he’d be able to resurrect.

As Brier has worked with mummies over the years, it continues to surprise him just how sickly the ancient Egyptians actually were. He said though most of us like to think of the ancient Egyptians as a happy civilization living on the banks of the Nile, they were actually sick all the time. According to Brier, the Egyptians were plagued with horrible teeth because they ate bread with sand in it on a regular basis. This eventually abraded their teeth and wore them down so they were in horrible pain most of the time.

“The ancient Egyptians had no idea what caused infections and no way to treat them so you could easily die of a tooth abscess,” he said.

He said after looking at the X-rays of the mummy of Ramesses the Great, Brier discovered he had horrible arthritis and couldn’t have walked during the last few years of his life. Additionally, he had a huge abscess on his jaw that may have killed him.

Brier said everything we know about ancient Egypt comes from their belief in life after death. During his lecture at the Joslyn, he will talk about mummies and the quest for eternity in ancient Egypt.  Brier said ancient Egyptians believed you were going to resurrect, thus your body better be in good shape. This idea led to mummification. He said he will explain the mummification process and will show recent slides of his mummy.

“Almost everything we know about them was this quest for immortality. All the objects we have are from their tombs. We have their paintings which are tomb paintings and we have their clothes which were put with them in the tombs. And their whole economy was centered on this quest for immortality. You had guys who were carving the tombs, you had people who were mummifying, so really the whole civilization was built around this desire for immortality – it’s unique,” Brier said.

Dr. Brier’s lecture Mummification: Resurrection of an Ancient Art takes place Thursday, May 10th at 6:30 p.m. at the Joslyn Art Museum. Tickets run $10-$15 and are available at joslyn.org or by calling 402-661-3862. Seating is limited and doors open at 6:00 p.m.

posted at 03:39 pm
on Monday, April 23rd, 2012

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